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22 November 2018

There’s only one sentence in the political declaration that matters as far as Brexit goes

By ruling out the option of endless transition, the shape of the final EU-UK agreement is also sharply limited. 

By Stephen Bush

The amended political declaration – the 26-page statement about the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom – has been widely leaked to journalists. What does it mean for the final shape of Brexit?

The reality is: very little. Unlike the withdrawal agreement itself, which tackles the issues arising from the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and has legal force, the declaration about the future relationship is aspirational and has no legal force. It’s the difference between receiving your degree and the accompanying speech from some passing celeb about how your generation will change the world: only the degree itself has any bearing on what happens next.

Similarly, there are lots of rhetorical flourishes designed to reassure Conservative MPs and attract Labour ones, but they don’t matter as they have no legal force. They may ultimately allow political cover for the withdrawal agreement to pass at some point,  but they don’t mean anything for the final shape of Brexit.

There is however one change that does matter: that concerning the extension of the transition, which is contained in the revised withdrawal agreement, in which the United Kingdom will continue to be part of the European Union’s economic project – the single market and customs – but outside the political project of the Commission, parliament and so on. At the moment that transition period runs until 31 December 2020, with an option to extend by July of that year. (Everyone involved with the process on both sides expects that option to be triggered.)

But now we know that transition will both be time-limited and single use only: the transition period can be extended just once and for a period no longer than two years. That matters because it means that at the absolute outside, the United Kingdom’s transition period will end in December 2022, and this parliament will, assuming it runs to a full term, last until May 2022.

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Why does that matter? Well, because it means that Conservative MPs may avoid what they see as the nightmare of another election in which we have not yet left the European Union; but it also means that whatever free trade agreement that is negotiated will have to pass this parliament, in which the Tory government is dependent on the DUP. The DUP will not accept or vote for a trade deal that puts up further barriers between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, and there is no route to negotiate a free trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union that puts a border on the island of Ireland itself – regardless of who is in power in Dublin. No Irish Taoiseach could survive that, and the Irish government has a veto.

That means that the only negotiated Brexit available will be one which keeps the whole of the United Kingdom within the regulatory and customs orbit of the United Kingdom. Whichever Conservative is in Downing Street will have to pass their free trade deal through this parliament, or exit without a deal. The only available Brexits are now either soft or chaotic.