March 19, 2018
UK makes concessions to Brussels but more work needed on issues including Irish border
UK and EU agree terms for Brexit transition deal
The UK has struck a deal on the terms of the Brexit transition period after making a series of concessions to Brussels and accepting a “back stop” plan of keeping Northern Ireland under EU law to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
After an intense few days and nights of talks, Brexit secretary David Davis said agreement on the terms of the 21-month period, ending on 31 December 2020, was a “significant” moment, which would give businesses and citizens the reassurance they needed.
The UK will retain the benefits of the single market and customs union for “near enough to the two years we asked for”, Davis said, albeit while losing its role in any decision-making institutions.
Liam Fox, the secretary for international trade, will also be allowed to sign new trade deals to come into force in 2021.
However, the British government has had to accept defeat on a series of demands, including on the prime minister’s very public insistence that citizens arriving during the transition period would be treated differently to those already in the UK.
“British citizens and European citizens of the 27 who arrive during the transition period will receive the same rights and guarantees as those who arrived before the day of Brexit,” said the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, during a joint press conference on the latest draft of the withdrawal agreement.
May has repeatedly insisted that the rights offered had to be “different” for those “coming to a UK they know will be outside the EU”.
Most contentiously, Barnier said that the UK had agreed that in relation to Northern Ireland the withdrawal agreement will retain a default solution to avoid a hard border under which the north and south of the island of Ireland would remain in regulatory alignment.
After the publication of the last draft of the 53,000 word agreement, including that back stop, May had insisted that no British prime minister could sign up to a text including a proposition that could “threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea”.
The EU and Ireland had insisted, in turn, that the “back stop” option was simply the translation of an agreement struck in a joint report between the UK and the European commission in December.
That report suggested that regulatory alignment would be necessary if either a future trade deal or a bespoke technological solution failed to offer the same advantage of avoiding a hard border.
With the issue threatening to stall agreement on the transition period, a deal, however had been struck, Barnier told reporters.
He said: “We agree today that the back stop solution must form part of the legal text of the withdrawal agreement”.
Davis said: “Make no mistake, both the United Kingdom and the European Union are committed to the joint report in its entirety and in keeping with that commitment we agree on the need to include legal text detailing the back stop solution for the border of Northern Ireland and Ireland in the withdrawal agreement that is acceptable to both sides.
“But it remains our intention to achieve a partnership that is so close as to not require specific measures in relation to Northern Ireland and therefore we will engage in detail on all the scenarios set out in the joint report.”
The UK insists that despite accepting that a back stop will be included in the final withdrawal agreement, it has not accepted the current wording proposed by the EU.
Downing Street wants inclusion in the text of its promise to avoid the need for border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, something Brussels says is a strictly domestic issue.
In a sign of the UK’s need to placate the EU over the issue, the prime minister is nevertheless expected to write a letter to the European council president, Donald Tusk, on the issue.
The UK has also rolled over on the demand of Michael Gove, the environment secretary, for a renegotiation of the fishing quotas for the last year of the transition period. Brussels has only given an assurance that the UK will be consulted on the total size of catches.
Downing Street’s hope for a veto on new EU legislation that could be damaging to the British economy has also been quashed. A joint committee will be established to “resolve concerns” and there is a clause requiring both sides to act in “good faith”.
The UK has attained the right to opt in to justice and home affairs legislation and to opt out of foreign policy decisions. Barnier confirmed that Gibraltar would not be covered by the transition deal unless Spain came to an agreement with the UK on the rock’s future.
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