By Henry Bird
With just under one year to go until the UK leaves the EU, Brexit negotiators have reached an agreement on the terms of a Brexit transition period, a time during which the UK will remain under the EU umbrella, whilst deciding on the finer details of their long-term relationship.
The two sides reached a series of compromises, with the UK being able to sign its own trade deals during the transition, but being forced to accept free movement for EU citizens during this two year period, as well as having to implement EU-decided laws but without any input, effectively as a non-voting ‘member’ of the EU.
After a tricky few months for the government, amid Brexit confusion, Conservative Party infighting, and public dissent, No. 10 can breathe a sigh of relief, as they now have a concrete piece of Brexit progress to offer critics, with the release of the 129-page document being hailed as one of the most valuable breakthroughs for the UK’s negotiating team since talks began.
Many have said, including the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, that this newly formed deal is a ‘decisive step’ towards an overall deal, which will, in turn, allow a clean withdrawal after the two year transition period. However, having agreed the transition arrangements, Theresa May now has until March to reach an agreement on the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU.
With regard to such an agreement, Michel Barnier addressed the press at the European Commission, saying that with the terms of the Brexit transition period agreed, ‘a large part of what will make up an international agreement for the ordered withdrawal of the United Kingdom’ has been formed. The UK Brexit Secretary David Davis added by saying that ‘the [transition] deal…should give us confidence that a good deal for the United Kingdom and the European Union is closer than ever before.’
The last major deal was struck in December, when the first joint report from the negotiators of the EU and the UK was released, although the 129-page document released on the 18th March shows rather more development than the 16-page release from December.
Among the key points addressed by this new transition deal is the status of EU citizens, who will now keep all existing rights in Britain during the two year transition period, and trade deals, which the UK will be able to agree with other countries while retaining EU trade arrangements. Some other finer details include a major coup for the UK government, who will be able to opt in and out of justice and foreign policy legislation on a selective basis.
Theresa May was keen to capitalise on such positives, emphasising the cooperation between the UK and EU, and also domestic successes, with inflation falling and the income squeeze slowly coming to an end. As Juliet Samuel wrote in her Daily Telegraph editorial, ‘the Brexit cogs are slowly turning’, and the government is eager to emphasise the smooth handling of the present situation.
However, two key issues remain unsolved, those being the Northern Irish border and the fishing industry. One notable failure of the transition talks was the failure to reach a full agreement on the Irish border, with only a last resort option being agreed, that is that should no border solution be found, Northern Ireland would maintain both customs union and single market membership. In addition, the Scottish fishing industry has been left in uproar over the decision to allow the EU the ability to set quotas even after Brexit next year, with Britain being consulted on these quotas for the next two years, but not having full control as was promised during the referendum campaign.
In light of these disappointments, the UK government has been keen to emphasise that both the UK and the EU have had to accept that no deal will be perfect. In her Daily Telegraph editorial, Juliet Samuel wrote ‘neither Leavers nor Remainers can afford to reject creative compromise’. Yet in the same newspaper, Alice Thomson noted that those demanding a perfect transition deal for the UK were ‘disruptors rather than innovators’, with innovation seemingly being one of the most important factors needed to please everyone, given that in recent days, a group of MPs, public figures and business leaders have formed the ‘People’s Vote’ Brexit campaign group, seeking to unite all anti-Brexit organisations.
Meanwhile, inside Westminster, ministers are expected to announce a series of concessions on the final withdrawal bill after facing defeat in the House of Lords, who have sent the bill back with amendments to the Commons, who will decide whether to accept the changes suggested or return the bill to the Lords for further analysis. This process, known as ‘ping-ponging’, can last for long periods of time, something the government would rather avoid, with opposition coming from all angles about the length of the Brexit process. With the new transition arrangements, many Brexiteers are arguing for a swifter exit, saying that the transition period is merely more time spent under the EU umbrella from which the UK voted to leave.
Many have been quick to point out that the transition period, although easing the UK’s departure from the EU, actually extols the benefits of staying in the EU as we set about leaving it. For instance, critics of the transition pointed out that the government hailed the fact that they were able to maintain the benefits of EU trade arrangements during the transition period, but only implement newfound trade deals with other countries after the period had ended, and far from being an ‘independent coastal state’, our reliance on the EU during this transition period has caused many to call into question not just the transition period, but the entire Brexit process, not least Nick Clegg.
In an interview with The Times, Clegg stated that “the transition period is just euphemism for delay […] it is the most undignified act of humiliation that I can remember in my lifetime. It means the UK is willingly now saying we will do all the hard bits of the negotiation after we have forfeited any means of leverage.” This is in reference to the fact that the UK will effectively remain a non-voting participant in the EU during the two year transition period, and with this realisation, many have begun to rethink the UK’s position, both now and post-Brexit.
With a flurry of major international incidents in recent weeks: the re-election of Vladimir Putin, the poisoning of a former Russian spy on UK soil, the continuing confusion and scandal surrounding the Trump administration-despite the government extolling the success of this new transition arrangement, European cohesion has become a major talking point. Certainly, the gradually worsening relationship between Russia and European nations has led to a show of EU unity against their alleged state-sponsored aggression, and with that, Nick Clegg’s words from his interview raise important questions: ’I think most across the EU know that an EU with Britain in it is much stronger’.
Of course, Theresa May and her government are unwilling to dwell on such a statement. As set out in her speech back in February, the ‘road to Brexit’ is not one from which the government is prepared to divert. This new transition arrangement has been hailed as a breakthrough, and shows the UK steadily moving towards an exit from the European Union. However, there is no escaping the fact that there is risk, as Nick Clegg foreshadowed in his interview with The Times, that ‘this is going to be turbulent’.
Photograph: CBAP_cz via Flickr