With the politics of the process changing almost by the minute, Richard Parry assesses the ‘stable text’ of the Brexit agreement.
The final phase of negotiating action in recent days was when the EU27 started to push back against some aspects of the UK-wide solution on Ireland upon realising that the backstop might be turning into a back door for long-term UK access to the single market. It was always an impossible conundrum to solve when the only land border between the EU and a departing member had to be invisible for political reasons. Both London and Brussels continue to perpetuate the line that the Irish backstop is a redundant failsafe mechanism that will never be needed and would be superseded by something better before it came into effect. But if the backstop was so difficult to negotiate, so detailed in content, and delineates the minimum necessary to prevent a visible border, how could anything better be agreed? The mechanism in the Withdrawal Agreement is a negotiated reality, requiring mutual consent to drop, and the best template we have on future UK-EU relations.
Last December’s joint report was a victory for the EU as the UK chipped in 21 further months of normal financial contributions and free EU citizen access after 29 March 2019. The new text moves in a direction more favourable to the UK. The delineation of Northern Ireland as separate from the UK is partly attenuated. The UK as a whole gains a route to a soft Brexit free customs access from January 2021. Wary of special statuses and still scarred by their relations with Switzerland – where adjustment to changing EU rules is not automatic and dynamic – the EU27 has now conceded in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland something that looks new, a 175-page template including non-regression on environmental and social standards and 90 pages listing EU regulations that would apply to the ‘United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland’ (annexes 5-8), the price-tag for the invisible border.
The piece of substance that has suffered in the endgame is the Future Framework of UK-EU relations. As recently as July the UK was seeing detail as close as possible to its Chequers plan as a prerequisite for the Withdrawal Agreement. Although more work is planned before the special European Council on 25 November, at the moment it is a shockingly brief seven pages of aspirational bullet points identifying areas for negotiation and choices that will have to be made (including fishing). There is a new time constraint, a deadline of 1 July 2020 for deciding (by consensus) whether to extend the transition period. Precision on the framework would have required negotiating capacity that is not there at the moment, but leaves the UK vulnerable to post-Brexit EU27 demands. Moreover, with the backstop in place, there is a default status available that only dreamers of global trade deals would put their all into overturning. ‘Temporary’ could prove just as temporary as the border between Northern Ireland and the 26 counties set in 1921.
Will this deal obtain political consent? As with all deals, its effectiveness may reside in its being not inherently a sell-out and equally liable to rejection by both sides. UK politics apart, the need for European Parliament and EU27 ratification has always been a vulnerable and neglected link in both timing and content – there are just too many opportunities for delay and veto. But in terms of the UK as a negotiating party, events changing by the hour include the scenario of Conservative meltdown and second referendum, the last hope that the UK will not leave the EU on 29 March 2019.