Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
With yesterday’s press conference between David Davis and Michel Barnier, it seems now very likely that the UK’s transition deal will be signed off by the European Council at the end of this week. Of course, nothing is agreed in these Brexit negotiations until everything is agreed, and obviously extremely complex problems remain to be resolved in the coming months. But if agreement is reached at this week’s Council, Theresa May can allow herself a glass of Welsh whisky or whatever she likes to do to unwind at the end of a tough few days.
For all the Government’s Brexit mis-steps, political problems and delays in agreeing policy positions, it’s undeniably true that progress is being made in these negotiations. We were told again and again that agreement in December was not going to happen – that Brussels would not sign off on Phase One of the talks. But they did, and we already have the outlines of a compromise for the future UK-EU relationship. That outline is far from perfect. But it has at its starting point zero-tariff trade on goods (somewhat bizarrely as a quid pro quo for maintaining access to UK fisheries). Just a few weeks back, we were told that zero-tariff trade post-Brexit was an unrealistic aspiration.
So despite the determined pessimism of many observers, it’s clear that the Government and EU are getting quite a lot done. Complex negotiations like these were always going to have plenty of downs as well as ups. Inevitably the news coverage focuses on the set-backs, the supposed humiliations, and the political splits on the UK side. And this adds to a misleading impression that nothing is being achieved.
Recognising what’s been achieved already should in no way exonerate the UK side from criticism. But it too often seems that there is a determination to only criticise and question the UK’s negotiating red lines. Or to highlight the supposed contradictions in what May’s Government is saying. Yet as I wrote previously for this site, despite endlessly decrying the UK for trying to have cake and eat it, the EU side is more than happy to cherry-pick away when it suits it, or to bend what it claims are its rigid rules of logic and legal certainty.
The UK side is endlessly accused of using misleading language, but there’s too little focus on the EU’s semantic distortions. For example, one of Brussels’s favourite lines of argument it to criticise the UK “red line” which has led it to declaring it will be leaving the Customs Union. Yet leaving the Customs Union is an inherent aspect of Brexit. It may be possible to agree to a partial Customs Union with the EU after Brexit, as a few other non-members have done, but leaving the EU will mean leaving the Customs Union. And a Turkish-style Customs Union would not guarantee frictionless trade.
In reaching this agreement, both sides have shown their ability to play the national EU sport: kicking the can down the road. The toughest issues – for example the Irish border and the ‘governance’ of the future agreement between the UK and EU – have been parked for later. That’s perfectly sensible. One of the things which British diplomats in Brussels told me they were most concerned about earlier in the negotiations was the phasing of the talks, so that progress on difficult issues – money and the Irish border – was required at the start, before the future relationship could be discussed.
Assuming the Council votes to sign this agreement off, UK and EU businesses will have the security of knowing that the status quo will be preserved until the end of 2020. It’s true that an agreement at political level for a transition is not entirely water-tight and that perfect certainty comes only with ratification. But some will recall that David Cameron’s renegotiation deal was a similar beast – a sort of “gentleman’s agreement” between the European leaders, rather than an EU treaty. And given, as I was memorably told by one EU27 Foreign Minister, “all” member states agree that the UK should pay the Brexit Bill, it would seem highly unlikely that Brussels would want to be in the position of a last minute No Deal outcome. That would mean explaining to net contributor countries that they would have to pay a lot more to plug the ensuing black hole, or net recipients that they would receive far less.
With the transition locked down, the arguments in favour of extending Article 50 beyond March 2019 fall away. Extending Article 50 is far from simple – every single EU member state would have to agree, and if the UK was still a member in May 2019, how would it avoid electing new MEPs in the European Elections scheduled for late May? Yesterday’s report by Hilary Benn’s Brexit Select Committee (which failed to win the support of the whole committee) advocated a potential extension of Article 50. But it’s hard to see the utility of extending that period if the transition is locked down.
There are major issues still to resolve. And as ever in negotiations, seemingly small problems can blow up into enormous stumbling blocks. One such issue is fishing. Economically speaking, it’s relatively small fry, you could say. But politically it’s a whopper. Ruth Davidson, and indeed most of the Scottish political classes, are hardly Brexit supporters. But there’s one issue they’ll fight for: a better deal for the UK fishing industry. With the EU spuriously trying to link free trade and maintaining the fishing status quo on one side, and Theresa May’s Scottish MPs (and some friends) determined to take back control on the other, this is the sort of battle likely to flare up over the coming months of the negotiations.
Nonetheless, there’s good cause for optimism. Despite all the drama we have seen so far, there’s one fundamental important insight to consider: both sides want a deal. Both sides are compromising. Some will argue the UK is moving further, but undeniably both sides have shown flexibility. Having watched things closely over the last few months, I’m quietly confident that (barring major upsets) slowly and haltingly, the Government and Brussels are edging closer towards a deal with which – though certainly imperfect – both sides will be able to live.