Brexit Divorce Deal: Red Lines Crossed and a Softer Brexit Than Expected
It’s finally happened – the government has agreed a deal on the first stage of Brexit talks, and we’re moving on to the actual substance of Brexit and our future relationship with the EU next year.
While the government will be pleased with headlines about negotiating through the night for a hard won agreement, the deal doesn’t look like a victory. After months of delay, red lines have been abandoned and Theresa May might be facing resistance from her own party in the future.
Here’s where the UK stands on the big three issues resolved this week:
1. We’re heading for a softer Brexit to avoid a hard Irish border
After the idea of a border around the island of Ireland was floated earlier this week, the DUP immediately condemned the plan, stating that they would not allow Northern Ireland to be treated differently to the rest of the UK. This was entirely predictable, and Theresa May ought to have seen it coming.
Finally, the government has accepted what many have been warning about since the EU referendum was first announced: to avoid a hard border in Ireland the UK will have to follow the rules of the customs union and single market.
This dramatic concession from the government means that the UK will essentially behave as a member of the customs union and single market for the foreseeable future, while having no power to influence those rules. It’s hard to square this with the ‘taking back control’ slogans of the Leave campaign. However, it does remove a lot of uncertainty, and will do more to protect jobs and livelihoods than the threat of no deal.
2. Red lines swept away on the ECJ, but hostile environment immigration policy set to continue
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a PM who sent controversial ‘go home’ vans around the country aimed at undocumented migrants as home secretary, the government has taken 18 months to guarantee the rights of EU citizens. EU citizens will continue to have a privileged immigration status post-Brexit, and won’t have to deal with, for example, the income thresholds faced by immigrants from other parts of the world when they want their partners to join them in the UK. Although this gives certainty to EU citizens for now, the door is open for changes in the future.
However, many EU citizens have already left the UK post-referendum, concerned about the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric we’ve heard since the vote. We already know that we’ve lost 10,000 EU NHS staff, it might be too late to dissuade more people from leaving when they feel insecure and unwelcome in the UK.
With the threat of a hard border in Northern Ireland removed, we will effectively have an invisible immigration border with the rest of the EU, but the government will want to claim they have ended freedom of movement. This means we can expect the damaging so-called hostile environment policy to continue, with borders erected instead around public services and access to housing.
The most contentious part of the immigration deal for the government is the continuing role of the European Court of Justice in protecting the rights of EU citizens. The ECJ was an often-repeated red line for Theresa May, but it’s been conceded that UK courts will still be able to petition the ECJ after Brexit. Several Conservative MPs had stated leaving the jurisdiction of the ECJ was the ultimate red line in Brexit negotiations, so we’ll have to wait and see the fallout from this decision.
3. We're paying our Brexit bill
Many senior MPs had previously been opposed to paying for any financial commitments in in a divorce bill, with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson notably stating that the EU could ‘go whistle’ over the divorce bill. However, today the government has confirmed we’ll pay a bill of between £35bn and £39bn. It appears that reality has set in about the relative weakness of the UK’s negotiating position, and the government have accepted that they will have to compromise to get a deal done before we leave the EU in 2019.
Overall, it’s a good thing that May has managed to get a deal together. Much of it could have been decided months ago had the decision not been taken to call an election, and we’ve seen some big concessions from the government, but the threat of a no deal Brexit has been reduced for now.
We’re now heading for the big discussions about the future relationship between the UK and EU next year. For anyone hoping that the next stage will be smoother, the EU has already started to call for clarity from the UK about what the government wants from a trade deal. Unfortunately the cabinet is no less divided on Brexit, and we know that there’s no agreed blueprint for a post-Brexit UK. We hope the next stage of talks won’t be more of the same uncertainty, but it’s not looking good.