Mission accomplished? After a night of prolonged discussion, Theresa May has reached an accord with the European Commission allowing talks to move on from legacy issues and on to the question of the final relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU27.
The full text is here, but the key points are as follows: the United Kingdom has agreed to pay its outstanding liabilities or the “divorce bill” in full. It hasn’t agreed a figure: although ballpark numbers have been regularly aired in the press. And no one to my knowledge disputes that the final figures will be a gross of around £80bn and a net a payment, once the UK’s share of assets is taken into account, of circa £40bn.
On citizens’ rights, the final agreement is closer to the original British proposal than the EU27’s, though the terms of family reunion are more compassionate than those the British government wanted: there will be no earnings threshold (or other bureaucratic hurdles faced by people from outside the EU) for relatives living in the UK on or before the date of withdrawal. However, the path has been cleared for a more draconian approach in future.
On the issue of Northern Ireland, the UK has agreed that in the absence of “specific solutions” – that’s technological workarounds to you and me – to prevent a hard border, it will align with the rules of the single market and customs union in order to prevent one by that route.
That last point is the most crucial. The depth of the continuing access to the European market is set primarily by the regulatory relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union after Brexit. What the PM is effectively agreeing is that the UK will become a ruletaker, not a rulemaker, while retaining the option of tougher borders in the future. Or, as one Labour MP put it this morning: “The party that says ‘Never, never’ for Ulster has said ‘Oui, oui, oui’ for the whole UK.”
Regardless, given that most people who voted to Leave wanted control over immigration but not to get poorer, regulatory vassalage and tougher borders is probably about right as far as the Brexit mandate goes. Reasonably, people are wondering how border control is compatible with an open border on the island of Ireland. That’s where the government’s “hostile environment” policy comes in – no EU citizen will be able to come to the United Kingdom through the Irish backdoor and get a job, rent a home, or claim social security afterwards. (I’m not saying this is a good thing, I’m just saying that the deterrent effect is large and the level of border control significantly greater than it would be in the single market as a result.)
Whether the PM has been driven to this point by political and economic reality, or if she has cannily said enough silly things to keep the Conservative show on the road, won’t be clear until the memoirs and diaries have been published and the 30-year rule has brought all the official documents to light. Even then, we may not know for sure.
Whichever is the case, it paves the way for stand-still transition and a deal that maintains British access to the single market at an economically survivable level. Pop the corks in Downing Street?
Well, not so fast. Many of the stated objectives of Conservative Brexiteers won’t be fulfilled thanks to the obligations the United Kingdom has agreed to secure sufficient progress. Yes, the United Kingdom is out of the single market and customs union in law – but agreeing to the necessary alignment in order to preserve the open Irish border means that “our laws” will still be controlled de facto if not de jure in Brussels.
One influential Leaver last week laid out their conditions for a deal to me: not subject to the regulation of the EU, free of the customs union and European Court of Justice. If those conditions mean anything to the bulk of Conservative Brexiteers beyond mere legalese, this agreement is going to go down very badly indeed.
Reading over the note, I had the same familiar tingle I had when I first read the plans for the dementia tax. It’s not my preferred agreement with the EU27 – because my preferred agreement with the EU is to stay in it – just as an inheritance tax lottery isn’t as desirable as a straightforward inheritance tax. But it’s better than the alternative on the table, and resolves many, but not all, of the problems of Brexit.
But just as with the dementia tax, it also rides roughshod over the political priorities of the right. Steve Baker, formerly chief of the European Research Group, and now a minister, has backed it on Twitter, and a lot hinges on whether or not his Eurosceptic credentials are enough to convince his colleagues that they really Can’t Believe It’s Not Brexit.
Because if he can’t, like the dementia tax, or indeed the attempt to increase national insurance contributions, it could end up as another May proposal that doesn’t do enough to win the support of her opponents but does end up shot down by her own side.