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The Brexit Negotations – Which Way Ahead?

The draft EU Treaty has brought the negotiations to a critical stage. Theresa May will meet Donald Tusk, the President of the EU Council of Ministers, today and make a major speech tomorrow. She is talking about “ambitious managed divergence”, which is interpreted in Brussels as ‘having your cake and eating it’. 

She wants “to have a good trading relationship with the EU. But we also want to be able to negotiate trade deals” with other non-EU countries. (PMQs 28.2.18) For that reason she has ruled out membership of a customs union. Jeremy Corbyn has committed Labour to support customs union membership and there appears to be a majority in the Commons for that.

The case for that relates to one of the serious sticking points in the negotiations – the Irish border issue. This was fudged in the talks in December and has to be resolved before real progress can be made in the negotiations. The EU draft treaty tentatively proposes a border between the EU and UK down the Irish Sea, leaving Northern Ireland within the EU customs union. That is politically unacceptable to the UK and, crucially, the DUP on whose support May depends in the Commons. She says, “No UK prime minister could ever agree to it” (PMQs 28.2.18).

The Irish border issue is constitutionally serious. Two former Prime Ministers who brought ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland to an end, Sir John Major and Tony Blair, are both sufficiently concerned about this to have made strong statements about it. Yesterday Major accused the Government of “bad politics” and called for a free vote in Parliament on whether there should be a second referendum. Blair will speak today in Brussels and plead for the EU leaders “to help lead Britain out of the Brexit cul-de-sac”.

David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, has threatened that the UK will not pay the £39 billion ‘divorce’ settlement if the EU won’t back down on the Irish border issue. That is an over-reaction because Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, has made clear that the draft text of the Treaty on this matter is only a fall-back option and would be deleted if the UK comes up with a better alternative.

Despite the chilly tone between the EU and UK this week, some progress has been made. The issue of citizens’ rights appears to have been resolved. The UK will allow EU citizens coming to the UK during the transitional phase after March 2019 to stay permanently if they wish, a concession demanded by the EU.

So the core issue in the negotiations is about the difference between a customs union and ‘customs arrangements’ that Theresa May says she wants. She opposes membership of the EU customs union because it would involve free movement of people, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and continued payments to the EU. She argues that to go that route would ignore the result of the 2016 referendum. It would almost certainly trigger a challenge to her leadership from the 62 hard-line Brexiteers in her Parliamentary party.

The most obvious interpretation of ‘Customs arrangements’ is a continued membership of EFTA and the EEA. EFTA states are free to make trade deals with non-EU countries but also to trade with the EU free from tariffs.  It would not be cost free but would not involve being under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. There is also a precedent for not allowing the free movement of labour.  Theresa My faces four challenges: to respect the referendum result, to achieve the best deal for British business and free trade, to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland,  and to keep her job as Prime Minister. Whatever one’s politics and views about EU membership, she needs our prayers as a fellow Christian.



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