UK backs down and accepts commitment it rejected weeks ago
The EU’s Michel Barnier this week gave a thumbs up to a transition deal offered by David Davis and Theresa May that could see Northern Ireland stay in the customs union
The UK’s 21-month Brexit transition arrangements – due to be rubber stamped by EU leaders in Brussels at the end of this week – are only on condition that there is no return to a hard border in Northern Ireland. If the British government cannot find a convincing way to prevent the return of a hard border – with checkpoints and customs posts then EU rules will apply to Northern Ireland –then Northern Ireland will effectively remain in the Customs Union. This is known as the “back stop” position.
Britain’s Brexit Secretary David Davis conditionally agreed this with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels in the hope that a convincing solution can be found in the time between now and final agreement in less than a year.
Prime Miniter Theresa May had earlier rejected an EU draft agreement that maintained a “common regulatory area” on the island of Ireland as “unacceptable” as it would create a border in the Irish Sea. But after talks this week, ahead of a summit in Brussels, it was agreed to include a new introductory section in the draft withdrawal agreement to give legal effect to the “backstop”.
It means the backstop will apply “unless and until another solution is found.”
In an echo of the Northern Ireland peace process talks that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement it will also state that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
The conditional agreement was welcomed by UK-based businesses who feared the Irish issue would hold up all progress, leading to a so-called “cliff edge” Brexit next year. Sterling jumped to its highest value against the dollar in three weeks on the news.
Mr Barnier said: “We were able to agree this morning… on a large part of what will make up an international agreement for the ordered withdrawal of the UK.”
“The intention is to move as fast as possible as soon as on all aspects of the future relationship”, said Mr Barnier. Brexit Secretary David Davis said the legal language on the Irish backstop had to be “acceptable to both sides”. On Ireland, the UK has agreed to include a “legal” backstop that would keep Northern Ireland in key parts of the single market and the EU’s customs union.
“The backstop will apply unless, or until, another solution is found,” said Mr Barnier. Mr Barnier said that there must be “a workable practical and solution” to avoid a hard Border. Both sides remained committed to the December political agreement that guarantees under the default “backstop” the avoidance of a hard Border. Mr Davis, who gave a joint press conference with Mr Barnier, said both the EU and UK had agreed on “the need to include legal text detailing the backstop solution for the Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland in the withdrawal agreement that is acceptable to both sides.”
Mr Davis said people should “make no mistake” by doubting that both the UK and the EU are committed to that agreement “in its entirety.”
He said it is still the UK’s intention to reach a comprehensive EU-UK trade agreement that will make it unnecessary to have a hard Border in Ireland.
“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 in the joint report.
“We have also reached on consensus on the full set of issues which need to be addressed in any solution in order to avoid a hard Border,” said Mr Davis. The EU and UK last week agreed to a work programme to tackle the issue of avoiding a hard Border.
“While there is as yet no agreement on the right operational approach, we know what we need to do and we’re going to get on with it,” he said.
Mr Barnier said of the Border negotiations: “We are not at the end of the road and there is a lot of work still to be done.”
Talks over the border will continue over the next weeks. Mr Davis said the transition period would allow businesses to “continue to operate and invest with confidence as the design of our future relationship with the EU becomes clear”.
The text agreed by the two sides lays out the precise terms for how Britain would continue to apply EU law after Brexit on 29 March next year, while losing any formal say on the way rules are developed and applied.
In practice it will provide for the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people between the UK and EU until 31 December 2020, earlier than the UK actually requested.
The extension of Britain’s continued membership the EU single market and customs union gives businesses at least an extra 21 months to make preparations and gives governments longer to plan for Brexit related changes to Britain’s customs, immigration and regulatory systems.
Guarantees over the arrangements in place immediately after Brexit are particularly important for manufacturing supply chains, banks and airlines, which sell tickets up to a year in advance.
During the transition the UK will have to abide by all existing EU rules but will have no say in the ministerial or inter-governmental decision-making process.
The two sides have also reached “complete agreement” on the terms agreed on citizens’ rights after Brexit and the UK’s financial settlement, Mr Barnier added.
“Citizens who arrive in the UK during the transition period will have the same rights as those arriving before the Brexit period”, said Mr Barnier. EU citizens arriving in the UK during the transition period will enjoy “the same rights and guarantees” as those present before Brexit, said Mr Barnier, adding that the UK will be able to negotiate trade agreements with outside countries during transition.
Mr Barnier said that there had also been “complete agreement” on future citizens’ rights and the financial settlement as well as agreement on a transition period after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019.
“We agreed that British citizens and European citizens of the 27 who arrive during that transition period will receive the same rights and guarantees as those who arrived before the day of Brexit,” he said.
Prime Minister Theresa May, under pressure within her own party from hard-line Brexiteers and ideological Eurosceptics like Jacob Rees Mogg who said Ireland should leave the EU if it wants to avoid a border, eagerly hailed the draft agreement: “I think the message people can take from this is that prior to December people questioned whether we would get agreement then. We did. People questioned whether we would get agreement now. We have.
“I think what this shows is that with good will on both sides, working hard, we can get an arrangement for the future which will be in the interests of the UK and in the interests of the Europe an Union and it will be good for all parts of the UK.”