After a year of slow progress, internal disputes and a position that fluctuates from one summit to another, the March European Council summit marked a breakthrough for the UK’s negotiations when the EU27 signed off on a draft legal text for the withdrawal agreement, a transition period, and negotiating guidelines for the future relationship between the UK and EU.
However, the negotiations have stalled and no significant progress was made at the latest summit in June. The focus is now on the October European Council summit; if no agreement on the UK’s withdrawal and future relationship is reached, the December summit will be the absolute last point at which a deal could be reached in time for it to be ratified before Article 50 expires at the end of March 2019.
The reason for the slow pace of negotiations is that since March, the UK government has descended into internal squabbles over diverging visions of the future relationship with the EU. The key dilemma, which has so far confounded all efforts to reach a solution, is how to square the need to avoid the imposition of a hard border in Northern Ireland with the Brexit pledge to leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union and to strike independent trade deals outside of the EU after Brexit. In addition, the government needs to deliver a Brexit which does not harm the economy or result in job losses. This dilemma is complicated by the parliamentary arithmetic, with the government reliant on the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to pass votes in the commons.
Advocates of a clean break with the EU have offered a vision of “managed divergence,” with mutual recognition of certain regulatory standards in key sectors to increase market access. In contrast, former Remain supporters prefer a model of close and ongoing regulatory alignment, with parliament symbolically having the power to diverge from EU rules. In reality, however, it is doubtful these powers would ever be used.
After months of internal discussions, the prime minister made a significant breakthrough by getting the cabinet to sign up to an agreement on the future relationship at a Chequers summit this July. The agreement formed the basis of a white paper on the future relationship with the EU, the most comprehensive and detailed policy document from the UK so far.
However, the cabinet truce lasted only a few days and the Chequers agreement has subsequently unravelled. Two prominent Brexiteers resigned from the cabinet in protest at the agreement (David Davis and Boris Johnson) and the government was forced to accept several amendments to the Customs Bill, effectively undermining key tenets of the white paper.
Heading into the summer break, the impression is of a weak prime minister presiding over a bitterly divided party advancing a negotiating position which has no chance of being accepted by the EU27. With time running out and the prospect of no deal looming, we can expect further political instability and unrest in the UK over the next six months.
Author: Matt Allison, Public Policy Manager, Access Partnership