How will the Brexit negotiations conclude?Contributor Karen Ward
Abstracting from the political drama, the important point is that UK parliament has no appetite for no deal.
The prime minister (PM) and UK negotiators have agreed on a Brexit deal with the European Union (EU), but it has been rejected three times by UK parliament. At the root of the problem is a conflict within the UK over what it wants from Brexit.
However parliament is clear that no deal is not a palatable option. Of those voting against the deal, most are doing so because they want a softer Brexit. The key question therefore is how can the deal be reshaped to gain majority approval, and what length of extension is required to renegotiate.
The proposed deal has two key elements. The Withdrawal Agreement is a legally binding treaty that sets out the terms of the UK’s divorce from the EU, including the financial settlement, the rights of citizens, the transition period (to December 2020, or beyond if extended) and a backstop arrangement in case both sides cannot fully agree on a future partnership. The Political Declaration is not legally binding, but contains some broad areas of agreement around which the future partnership will be constructed.
There are two particular areas of contention.
The first is the backstop. Throughout the negotiation, one of the key areas of difficulty has been that of the Irish border. The UK argued that it wanted to leave the EU but did not want to create a border on the island of Ireland, given the potential for such an arrangement to undo the peace process underpinned by the Good Friday agreement. At the same time, Northern Ireland does not want to be in a separate arrangement from mainland UK. The problem is that the proposed backstop does essentially leave Northern Ireland more firmly rooted in the customs union than the rest of the UK, and requires regulatory checks in the Irish Sea. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland - which supports Theresa May’s minority government - has said that it cannot support this deal. In addition, some members of parliament (MPs) are uncomfortable with the fact that the backstop cannot be revoked by the UK unilaterally. They argue that this limits the EU’s incentives to move swiftly towards finalising the future partnership.
The other key area of opposition is within the Conservative Party. The faction generally known as the Brexiteers are aiming for a cleaner break from Europe - a so called “no-deal” exit. Their view of the current deal is that the cost of having to abide by EU rules and regulations, and the resulting concession of “sovereignty”, outweighs the benefit of having access to the EU’s markets (which currently account for 44% of all UK exports).
While there is validity to all the concerns, the PM could never have struck a deal that pleased everyone. The UK’s ambitions were internally conflicting. The need to have free flow of trade in Ireland without Northern Ireland being carved off in separate rules, alongside the realities of an extremely integrated UK and EU supply chain, requires the deal to be based around a customs agreement in goods. This means accepting EU standards - and so the UK cannot fully regain sovereignty. (If the UK struck a trade deal with the US to compensate for a lesser relationship with the EU, it would require accepting US standards, which, in agriculture, are currently very different). As such, no deal was ever going to be a “good deal”-one that would please all MPs. This is worth remembering when considering whether an alternative MP would either wish to replace the PM, or have the ability to craft an alternative deal.
If the prime minister continually fails to get support for the deal, there is a complex web of possible outcomes and, given the unchartered territory, the legalities of all the options are not perfectly clear. But below we’ve tried to highlight the four key potential scenarios. We’ll present them starting with those we believe are least likely.
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