Much of the current debate around Brexit is about the withdrawal agreement, but actually the withdrawal agreement is just the first part of continuing negotiations between the UK and the EU. So, after seeing the draft agreement, released on 14 November, is the shape of the future trade relationship any clearer?
The only thing that is clear is that the UK and EU can’t start talking about the future until a withdrawal agreement is in place and it has gone through the British parliament. The withdrawal agreement covers the terms of the UK’s exit, but there is this big question around the Irish border in any future arrangement, and that question would still exist.
What does the draft withdrawal agreement tell us about the proposals for the Irish border and the backstop that would take effect if the transition period (scheduled to last until December 2020) expires without a comprehensive new arrangement?
What’s different about this draft agreement is that the backstop is no longer specific to Northern Ireland. Instead, the UK and the EU have agreed to a shared customs territory, with Northern Ireland abiding by more Single Market rules than the rest of the UK (for example on VAT). This is partly because of how deeply embedded its trade is with the Republic of Ireland and because of the need to avoid a hard border. But this backstop acts as an insurance policy; it would only take effect if no other solution is found before the end of the transition period.
This is criticized by some in the UK because it still subjects Northern Ireland to a slightly different set of rules to the rest of the UK. Others are afraid that in the absence of an alternative, the UK would be locked into a customs arrangement, which would constrain its ability to strike other trade agreements. But it is a big compromise on the part of the EU. Many did not expect that to happen.
Essentially, if the withdrawal agreement goes through and then, during the transition period, an alternative hasn’t been agreed, an arbitration tribunal would come into play and evaluate any disputes that arose around the shared customs territory, including the measures taken to avoid a hard border in Ireland. It’s true that neither side would be able to unilaterally withdraw from such an arrangement, but crucially the arbitration panel would be composed of members from both sides.
Is there too much focus on this issue given that both the UK and the EU have acknowledged that they hope to avoid a situation where the backstop needs to be used?
It depends on what you value most. Obviously, when you have a very long and technical withdrawal agreement, it makes it much easier for people to focus on one issue at the expense of others. UK Prime Minister Theresa May and the EU have emphasized that the hope is the backstop never comes into force and a full agreement is reached on the future relationship between the UK and the EU – but the withdrawal agreement, with the backstop acting as an insurance policy, is needed to begin those talks and avoid the UK crashing out with no deal.
With those future talks in mind, how will those on the EU side react to how the domestic political debate in the UK has played out around the withdrawal agreement?
It’s worth remembering that the EU has also compromised, particularly around this shared customs territory. That was something that member states didn’t particularly like. We know that France, Belgium and the Netherlands plan to spend the next couple of days mulling over the withdrawal agreement to make sure that they are happy with it. But the expectation is that they will give their support and backing to Michel Barnier, the lead EU Brexit negotiator, throughout the negotiations.
EU member states understand the complexity and the frustrations of Brexit in the UK. But there is a danger: if the UK goes back asking for more compromise on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal, there is no guarantee that member states would be willing to re-open negotiations or that they would be willing to give much. And what if their own people grow tired of Brexit? In that scenario, the space for compromise is reduced considerably.
How much compromise do you feel there has been so far?
This is the outcome of lengthy, complex negotiations, but both sides have given in. I think it’s fair to say that the UK has probably compromised more than it would like, but the EU has compromised as well. Whether one side has given in more is a bit beside the point, because I don’t see how it could be changed to satisfy everyone.
Going into the future negotiations, what can the UK learn from how this has played out so far?
The main lesson for the UK is it will never have a deal that is going to satisfy everyone. Ultimately, this is a negotiation with the EU – so if you did find an outcome that is broadly accepted by everyone domestically, it might not be the outcome that you come to with the EU.