The Brexit debate focuses on Chequers when the most important thing now is the “backstop”by Jill Rutter / August 31, 2018 / Leave a comment
As parliament returns from its summer break, the autumn agenda will be dominated by Brexit. There is a very real risk that negotiations break down and we leave with no deal.
But while the debate in the UK focusses on whether the prime minister’s so-called Chequers deal still lives—or is a dead deal walking, with few advocates beyond the PM herself and her deputy David Lidington, it is important to remember that that is not the most urgent issue. The most important thing this autumn is the withdrawal agreement.
Back in December, the UK and the EU27 agreed a joint report—which settled our financial obligations, set out the guarantees for citizens of the EU and UK and included a big slab of fudge on how to reconcile hard Brexit with the agreed commitment to avoid a hard Irish border. That allowed the European Council to declare “sufficient progress” and it gave the greenlight to start talking about the future relationship in parallel with finalising the withdrawal agreement.
By March, Michel Barnier and David Davis could brandish a legal text of the UK’s withdrawal treaty with hefty dollops of green, signaling that sections had been signed off. But there were still areas of disagreement. The big outstanding issue was how to translate Irish fudge into more precise legal text. The UK offered no proposals: the EU offered a draft protocol for the so-called “Irish backstop” which the prime minister within hours had said neither she nor any other UK PM could accept. The price for avoiding a hard land border would be a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in the Irish Sea.
Since then there has been stalemate. The UK offered a “temporary customs arrangement” and assumes its Chequers plan will solve the regulatory border issues—but the EU has so far rejected a UK-wide solution which could become permanent in the absence of a long-run deal. It’s an option that Brexiteers see as precluding their sort of Brexit as well.
EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier now talks of “dedramatisation” as a way of jumping the Irish roadblock, while others discuss backstops within backstops. Further issues need finalising too, including the knotty question of how the agreement applies to the UK’s other land border with the EU—Gibraltar—where the EU guidelines gave Spain a veto.
The intention has always been that the WA will sit alongside a political declaration on the “future framework” for the UK’s relationship with the EU. Given how divisive the PM’s attempts to nail her Cabinet to specifics has proved, she may end up opting for a declaration that is simply a thesaurus of synonyms for “deep” and “special.” Whatever it says, it is political mood music, not a binding treaty.
But only once she has successfully manoeuvred the withdrawal agreement onto the statute book, will the PM be able to start on the nitty gritty of the future relationship.
As our latest report at the IfG makes clear, the defaults are set to no deal. And concluding the withdrawal agreement with the EU27 may not prove the hardest part of the PM’s autumn task. She then faces a series of parliamentary hurdles: the “meaningful vote,” the promised bill to implement the agreement—and ratification by both the UK and European Parliaments. She needs a majority to get those through—and cannot fall back on the delaying tactics the government has resorted to, to head off controversy in the past.
Falling at any of those hurdles means a no deal, no transition, Brexit.