Onwards to Brexit
Following months of uncertainty and little apparent progress, last week’s draft agreement between the EU and UK government demonstrates a remarkable step forward in the Brexit negotiations. The draft agreement is particularly significant for having addressed the constitutionally fragile question of the Irish border – something that required careful navigation through the seemingly incompatible demands of the Irish government, on the one hand, and the DUP, on the other. By managing to agree key provisions relating to the Irish border, the ‘divorce bill’ and the rights of EU citizens, Theresa May has managed at least temporarily to reassure many of those who were concerned about the government’s competence to negotiate a favourable deal for the UK. With prominent remainers such as Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry, as well as senior Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Michael Gove welcoming the progress made in the negotiations, the Prime Minister has provided a much-needed boost to both her own and the government’s position going forward. With Jean-Claude Juncker approving the agreement as ‘sufficient progress’, Theresa May enters the approacing European Union summit with a credible chance of securing formal approval of Juncker’s recommendation from the other 27 Member State heads of government.
Moving onto phase 2
The second phase of the negotiations will certainly not be any less of a challenge for the UK government, as the focus shifts primarily towards the future trade relationship between the UK and EU. The government has yet to outline a clear position on the issue, and with Chancellor Philip Hammond admitting that the Cabinet has yet to even discuss the desired ‘end state position’, future negotiations look set to be filled with high political drama. Two possible pre-existing models of future relationship are those that the EU currently enjoys with Norway and Canada. The Norwegian framework relationship would involve the UK exiting the customs union, but nevertheless enjoying all the benefits of, and being subject to, the conditions of single market membership, including the free movement of workers. This kind of relationship would be unpalatable to many Brexiteers within the government, and would effectively amount to reneging on the red lines that were set out at the outset of the negotiations. Alternatively, a replication of the Canadian trade agreement (CETA) would be poorly tailored for the UK’s service-based economy – a sector for which little provision is made in CETA. Brexit Minister David Davis has expressed preference for a ‘Canada plus plus plus’ deal, although any attempt to have a more comprehensive, services-encompassing version of CETA may find opposition from among the EU27, whose freedom to provide goods and services within the EU is intertwined with the politically contentious issue of free movement of workers. There is no desirable pre-existing model of relationship with the EU, and the Prime Minister has expressed her aim of reaching a ‘bespoke’ agreement. The path towards delivering this is, therefore, likely to be long and arduous.
As well as the difficulties the government is likely to encounter with the EU institutions and the other Member States, Theresa May is also contending with fierce domestic scrutiny of the negotiations, perhaps the most significant of which comes from within her own party. Given Jeremy Corbyn’s consistent failure to land an effective blow in Brexit scrutiny, it is those Tory MPs that have demonstrated willingness to deprive the government of its DUP-reliant majority who may provide the most effective scrutiny going forward. Given the passing of Dominic Grieve’s amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill providing for a meaningful parliamentary vote on the final deal, these Tory rebels have shown their mettle and look set to play a growing role in the progres