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The big picture
Exciting, wasn’t it? The through-the-night talks, the pre-dawn dash to Brussels, the packed press conference, and those long-awaited words: “Sufficient progress.” Britain last week won EU approval to move to the next phase of Brexit talks.
After the ignominious collapse of discussions earlier in the week when the DUP was not shown a draft of the text and raised fears of Northern Ireland being “decoupled” from the rest of the UK, the relief was palpable as negotiations on transition and future trade were cleared to get under way, probably in February.
But no sooner was the 15-page agreement released – it should be rubberstamped at a summit later this week – than the fudges it contained were pounced upon. Theresa May won the effusive praise of even her most pro-Brexit ministers, but the EU was more circumspect. One official said:
The UK has not been particularly specific. It has been setting out a number of red lines, but what it has been saying so far still entails a number of internal contradictions and does not seem entirely realistic.
Chief among those is the Irish border. As the EU has noted, it is hard to see how Britain can keep its regulations in alignment with the EU’s so as to avoid a hard border across Ireland, while simultaneously leaving the single market and customs union and preserving the integrity of the UK.
The question crystallises EU concerns about the next stage of the talks. London’s hopes for future deregulation to gain competitive advantages while still enjoying frictionless trade with Europe are seen as evidence that Britain still intends to have its cake and eat it after Brexit.
The chancellor, Philip Hammond, confirmed those suspicions last week when he said the cabinet had not yet had a specific discussion about the final Brexit outcome it wanted. The EU will want more clarity from May on the government’s vision of a free trade agreement before it will engage in substantive talks.
With several other finer points of the agreement – on citizens’ rights and the size of the financial settlement – also glossed over and kicked into the next round of talks, the European council president, Donald Tusk, was not alone in warning that the second phase would be harder than the first.
Reporting back to MPs on the deal, May said it was “good news” for both remain and leave voters, adding that there was a “new sense of optimism” in the talks. She did add, however – in what appears to have become the new Brexit catchphrase – that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
The view from Europe
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said the next phase would be significantly more difficult, mainly because “not everyone has yet well understood that there are points that are non-negotiable for the EU”.
European governments and business leaders generally welcomed the breakthrough but warned that the most difficult negotiations lay ahead. There was “still much work for negotiators to do”, a German government spokesman said. German businesses said they must know soon “what model Britain proposes”.
France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said the divorce talks had “progressively reached a positive outcome”, but the conditions of Britain’s departure were still not “clearly defined”.
Negotiators have until October 2018 to strike an outline agreement on trade and transition, which will pave the way for a fully fledged trade deal and foreign policy and security treaties to be negotiated after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019.
Meanwhile, back in Westminster
With the dust still settling from Friday’s last-minute Brexit deal, it’s perhaps still a bit early for May’s more fervently pro-Brexit MPs to be flexing their muscles. Just don’t take their relative silence so far for acquiescence – it’s more of lull before the fighting starts again.
After the humiliation of the sudden collapse of the deal on Monday, there was every incentive for all Conservatives to talk up the eventual compromise. But amid speculation the language of the deal points towards a softer form of Brexit, harmony will surely not reign for ever.
While May will be wary of the views of her band of backbench Brexit ultras, it will be the ones in her cabinet that will be of more concern, notably Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
So far, Gove’s intervention has been the more notable: the environment secretary said that if UK voters don’t like the deal as made, the government would be able to amend it. This might be news to Brussels.
Labour, meanwhile, have been sticking to their tactic of what might be called managed ambiguity on Brexit. Speaking on Monday, John McDonnell insisted his view that the UK could not stay in the single market after departure was consistent with the views of the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer.
“What I said was, remaining in the single market would not respect the referendum result. But we’ve been using the phraseology ‘a single market’, not ‘the single market’ and ‘a customs union’ and not ‘the customs union’.” Everyone clear on that?