What a mad rush to the tape it’s turning out to be! Theresa May will be in Brussels today ahead of Sunday’s summit to squeeze the last scrap of advantage out of the withdrawal agreement as they all look ahead to the future. The EU states on the other hand are equally determined that as the price of leaving, Britain will be denied advantages she enjoys now. Last minute objections are being raised by the Spanish over the status of Gibraltar, by the French and others over fishing rights in UK waters – a key Brexiteer issue – and by the poorer eastern European states objecting to proposed new elite standards for immigrating to the UK.
On the British side, Mrs May is said to be reviving the previously discarded “maximum facilitation” option for the Irish border – how seriously remains to be seen – in a blatant attempt to appease the Brexiteers including the DUP.
As expected the Irish Times insists that technology to replace the backstop and another shot at negotiations are UK delusions. Denis Staunton concedes that
the withdrawal agreement does allow for “alternative arrangements” but it is clear that any such arrangements must be mutually agreed by the EU and the UK. Downing Street is also fuelling speculation in London that Sunday’s summit in Brussels could turn into a long night of negotiations.
This idea of a late-night, marathon negotiating session is a fantasy the EU is determined to deny Britain and there is no appetite among the other member states for anything other than a brief meeting to sign off on the deal.
Tanaiste Simon Coveney agreed, adding that the seven pages of the original declaration had expanded to all of twenty pages and that following the withdrawal agreement they had “at least two to three years of negotiations ahead on the future relationship” ahead of them.
The original seven pages were studiously vague to give the scope May is looking for. Services especially financial services figure at last. In the sections relating directly to Northern Ireland and Ireland….
· Extent of the United Kingdom’s commitments on customs and regulatory cooperation, including with regard to alignment of rules, to be taken into account in the application of checks and controls at the border.
· In this context, recalling the Union’s and the United Kingdom’s intention to replace the backstop solution on Northern Ireland by a subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing.
Make of that what you will. The Times has a useful explainer by Oliver Wright and Henry Zeffman. Example…
What it says
“Comprehensive arrangements creating a free-trade area combining deep regulatory and customs co-operation, underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition”
What it means
“This is deliberately vague but it sounds like it goes further — and with many more obligations — than a Canada-style free-trade agreement favoured by the Brexiteers. Of particular importance will be any further detail on what “deep customs co-operation” means in practice. To get out of the Irish backstop this co-operation will have to be a customs union to make a hard border in Northern Ireland unnecessary. It will also have to allow Mrs May to claim that the UK is able to implement new free-trade deals on services. Given that the EU turned down her proposal of a so-called facilitated customs arrangement the detail of what has been agreed in this regard will be critical
Also important will be regulatory alignment. The European Union rejected Mrs May’s idea of a common rule book whereby the UK and the EU would maintain the same regulatory standards for goods that might cross the border between them. What seems to have taken its place is a concept of dynamic alignment, in which both sides can set and alter their rules at will but if one side chooses not to follow the rules of the other then that could restrict access to the other’s market”.
Brexiteer toxicity: 4/5
The prime minister must hope she’ll get just enough out of the last stage of the negotiations to make Brexiteers pause before they cast their meaningful votes.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London