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Ed's Brexit round-up - Withdrawal Agreement special!

16th Nov 2018 / By Ed Barker

Well this has been a week that was.

From a fairly innocuous start to the week it went totally bonkers as of Wednesday at about 7pm, continuing for the rest of the week. Here is my best attempt to explain what has happened, what it means and what may happen next (!)

Withdrawal Agreement

Right so let us start with the non-political side of things. On Wednesday evening  EU and UK negotiators reached an agreement on a draft Withdrawal Agreement and on an outline of the Political Declaration on the framework for the future relationship between the UK and the EU. In other words, they have found a way to go into a transitional period and have identified a possible future trade deal/agreement afterwards.

Most importantly, this means that both parties have identified a suitable backstop on the future of the Irish border, which had been the main blockage until now. Remember this agreement was only there to allow the UK to go into atransition (March 2019-December 2020 – this this can be extended), and any declaration on the final deal is only broad words and aspirations at this point.

Irish border

Many people who have heard or read my ramblings in the past will know that the Irish border has remained one of the most fiendishly tricky things to work out, and the Withdrawal Agreement seems to have done that, in addressing what would happen if there is still no deal agreed after the transition period on the Irish border.

The agreement in effect outlines that Northern Ireland the Republic would in such a scenario share the same regulatory framework – so that goods can pass between the two without a need for inspections. If GB wanted to veer away from common EU standards (say, in food) then inspections would have to take place at GB or in Northern Ireland – in other words an Irish Sea border.

However despite all of this, the whole of the UK would stay in a common customs area. Both of these are designed only to be emergency, temporary measures if no other agreement can be reached – so they really are the last resort. Aside the border, the Withdrawal Agreement also allows for the fact that the UK would be treated as an EU member in all but name during the transition, at a cost to the UK, whilst EU citizens would have unhindered access to UK in this time and vice versa.

On top of this, the UK will be free to formally negotiate new trade deals after March 2019, however ratification can only be done with the EU’s say-so if it is to be before December 2020. Finally, there will be a role for the European Court of Justice to provide oversight of any points of contention or disagreement in this time.

Murky political waters

What then of the politics? Well we are into quite murky waters – Theresa May endured a pretty unpleasant savaging on Thursday from her own backbenchers as well as the Opposition and DUP who are upset with the proposals, just in very different ways.

Brexiteers: Unhappy because of the role of the ECJ, and that a backstop will see the UK remain in a customs union. Also sceptical of the fact that we will be able to have new trade deals with new countries because of our alignment to EU standards. Also believe that a no-deal fall out has been overstated and it can be dealt with – whilst also a point of leverage against the EU.

DUP/Ulster Unionists: Unhappy because of the fact that the backdrop leaves an al-Ireland solution on standards. Even though it prevents a hard border – something no one wants, not even the DUP, the fact that there is a marked difference (albeit unlikely and a last scenario) between GB and Northern Ireland, and commonality with the Republic instead, this symbolically is a threat to the Union.

Remainers: Unhappy, as they have been throughout the whole process. They see this as reducing our ability to influence in Europe yet being a rule taker and payee to the EU. They argue that for business continuity we sohud either seek to have a second referendum on clearer terms or to have a Norway style EEA agreement instead where the UK is politically out but economically in the EU.

Scots: Depending on what kind of Scot, they fall into one of the above three camps. However almost all are worried by the agreement on fisheries and possible post 2021 future deal on the fishing sector. The agreement outlines EU/UK co-operation to ensure fishing at sustainable levels, to manage shared stocks as well as the establishment of a new fisheries agreement on access to waters and quota shares to be in place. For many, any sharing of stocks or quotas is too much.

Everyone else in the middle of it all: It is important to remember that many MPs of all parties fall under a silent majority. I have been talking to a few MP offices that fall under this category and they are as confused as anyone else; they see a democratic vote that ought to be respected, but at the same time either feel factions in their own party are taking over the show and pursuing ideology over practicality, or that their own party is not sufficiently challenging the Government on its future strategy.

Watch this space. For further reading I would recommend David Owers’ recent Farmers Weekly column. Let us hope that the Prime Minster (whoever it may be) is a subscriber (unless of course it was written as a pitch for the job….)

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