What does the agreement say? Which bits are controversial? And will it get through cabinet and parliament?
Theresa May’s cabinet meets later on Wednesday to approve or reject the text of a draft withdrawal agreement drawn up this week in Brussels by EU and UK negotiators two-and-a-half years after Britain voted to leave the bloc.
Here is a brief guide to what – as far as we know – the agreement says, which parts of it may prove controversial (and why), how likely the prime minister is to get the deal through her cabinet and then parliament, and what could happen next.
What is the withdrawal agreement?
Think of it as the separation agreement between the UK and the EU. Running to a rumoured 400 to 600 pages, it covers three main areas:
- Britain’s financial settlement with the EU to meet agreed commitments.
- The post-Brexit rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens on the continent.
- A mechanism to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The agreement also includes a much shorter (and non-binding) political declaration, probably of about 15 pages, outlining what the two sides see as their desired future trading relationship – which remains to be negotiated.
Why has it been to hard to reach?
While some of the detail took longer, the UK and EU agreed reasonably quickly on the so-called divorce bill and citizens’ rights (although not to the satisfaction of many of the citizens concerned).
The sticking point has been the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which after Brexit will also become the border between the UK and the EU. Because of the island’s troubled history, both sides want to avoid a hard border with customs checks that could become a source of friction.
The problem has been that since the prime minister promised in her Lancaster House speech to take Britain out of both the EU’s single market (to cease being an EU “rule-taker”) and the customs union (to allow it to strike its own trade deals around the world), customs and regulatory checks at the border are difficult to dodge.
Ultimately, the border is supposed to become a non-issue under the terms of the comprehensive free trade agreement the two sides are expected to sign at some stage after Britain’s departure on 29 March next year.
But because this agreement may well not be negotiated by the end of the transition period in December 2020, the EU insisted on a “backstop” arrangement to avoid a hard border until a free trade agreement came into effect. The row over the form this backstop should take is what has prevented the withdrawal agreement being signed until now.
So how has this been resolved?
For months, Britain rejected the EU’s proposed backstop – in effect, keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union and single market – because it would require customs checks in the Irish Sea and other arrangements meaning Northern Ireland was treated differently to the rest of the UK.
But the EU also rejected Britain’s suggestion that the whole of the UK should stay in a de facto customs union with the EU, mainly because the government wanted to be able to withdraw from such an arrangement unilaterally and when it chose (which, for the EU, meant it could not be considered a proper backstop).
The solution appears to involve concessions on both sides. On the EU side, the chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has accepted the idea of a whole-UK customs union with the EU, satisfying the UK’s demands that its territorial integrity must be preserved.
But in return, Britain must agree that it will not be allowed to exit the backstop unless and until the EU agrees there is no prospect of a return to a hard border. In addition, it will have to accept special “deeper” customs arrangements for Northern Ireland, and the EU’s so-called “level playing-field” conditions for the whole of the UK.
These address member states’ concerns that de facto customs union membership without the obligations of the single market could give the UK an unfair advantage, so will require Britain to observe EU rules on, for example, state aid, competition, the environment, tax and labour market rules.
Hardly. Conservative Brexiters are aghast at the prospect of Britain potentially being “trapped” forever in a customs union with the EU – so prevented from striking independent trade deals – and appalled at having to continue to accept EU regulations to boot (hence Boris Johnson’s dismissal of the deal as “vassal state stuff”).
The Northern Ireland unionists of the DUP – on whose votes in Westminster the government relies for its majority – also fear those “deeper” customs arrangements and additional checks on livestock and food crossing the Irish Sea breach the party’s red lines on identical treatment for Northern Ireland.
Labour has said the agreement looks unlikely to support jobs and the economy or guarantee standards and protections, and if that’s the case it will vote against it. Tory remainers – heartened by Jo Johnson’s resignation last week – may also be encouraged to rebel.
First, the prime minister must get the withdrawal agreement through cabinet, whose leave-supporting members need to decide whether to put their money where their mouths are. If she succeeds, an emergency EU summit could then be held, most likely on 25 November, to seal the deal.
Then it has to be got through parliament earlier rather than later in December. Many observers believe it could fall at this hurdle, resulting either in a challenge to May’s leadership, a general election, or even a second referendum (with staying in the EU still theoretically an option, although that would mean extending article 50).
But even if she and her agreement survive, the government will still have to decide before June 2020 whether it wants to extend the transition period, fall into the Northern Ireland backstop arrangement or enter a permanent customs union – and after that, seal a future trade deal on which the two sides remain far apart.
Britain’s Brexit battle is a long way – a very long way – from over.
Article originally posted by theguardian.