The December EU summit just got a little simpler, but challenges on the Irish border and EU citizens’ rights remainby Jill Rutter / November 29, 2017 / Leave a comment
We seem finally have managed to leap over one of Michel Barnier’s stumbling blocks to “sufficient progress”—an agreement on how the UK will settle its departure bill. Details to be set out, we are told, on Monday. It looks set to be considerably bigger than the PM’s €20 billion offer that was on the table in October—with the Financial Times quoting an acceptance of liabilities of up to €100 billion but a hope we end up paying just half of that.
The negotiation was quite tortuous. Money was an issue which mattered a lot to the EU27. The initial Commission bid was upped by member states playing hardball. The laundry list presented to the UK at the start of the negotiations was long.
The UK never tabled a position paper. Instead it sent along a team of officials and a lot of powerpoint to deconstruct the legal case behind the EU ask.
In her Florence speech the prime minister tried to unlock progress. But most member states focussed on her proffered solution to the EU’s short-term budget crunch rather than her words about “honouring commitments.” It is the fact that a method now seems to have been agreed on what those commitments are—and how the UK will go about honouring it—that agreement is now in sight.
Part of the deal is that the EU has parked its demand for an upfront sum—a big figure that the UK pays upfront, with possible refunds over time. Instead the bill will dribble out over time as liabilities fall due—and in some cases potentially never materialise. It may take decades to work out how much we finally paid.
It may appear that the UK negotiators have made very little headway against the Commission. Indeed the budget negotiation seems to have followed the pattern of the negotiations on citizens’ rights where the UK has already conceded far more than the EU has.
But that is to ignore where the real negotiation has taken place—and that is within the British government. The prime minister has had to wage a war of attrition against her colleagues and backbenchers to bring them to a point where she is able to move towards an offer the EU27 will accept. Her victory will be if she can navigate through the December Council keeping her cabinet intact, backbenchers onside and the Brexiteer press in line.
Of course settling the budget was in some ways the easiest of the three phase one issues. The only question there was how big a cheque the UK was prepared to write.
Final settlement on citizens’ rights still requires some compromises—on whether and for how long EU citizens have better rights to family reunification than their British counterparts—and on how we provide guarantees to protect the exercise of rights in the future—either through the European Court of Justice or some other supranational body.
Again there appear to be solutions round the corner. Which leaves the Irish conundrum as the last roadblock standing. At the moment there appears no way out of the cul de sac constructed by the UK’s commitment to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union, the DUP’s vehement objections to any special status for Northern Ireland and the Irish government’s insistence that no hard border means no hard border.
It may be possible to do what British officials usually excel at—draft their way sufficiently around the problem to allow everyone cover to advance. But the Irish will be wary of passing up their best chance to insist on their case. But for the December summit to fall to pieces on Ireland, after the prime minister has moved so far on the other issues, would risk a fast track to a no deal Brexit—with the UK and the Irish economies the two biggest losers.