After more than twenty-seven months of futility, rumors picked up this week that the EU and UK had made significant progress on a deal for an orderly Brexit. A new BBC report that Theresa May has called her cabinet for a meeting tomorrow has raised hopes that a “soft Brexit” plan has been achieved. Before the meeting tomorrow, though, May will brief each minister in her government individually this evening:
Theresa May is to chair a special cabinet meeting on Wednesday to discuss a draft Brexit withdrawal agreement.
A cabinet source has told BBC the text has been agreed at a technical level by officials from both sides after intensive talks this week.
The Sun reported that every minister was being asked to see the PM for one-to-one talks on Tuesday evening.
The Guardian reports that a draft deal has been reached, and that it’s not exactly light reading. Their EU sources are wary of calling it a deal, however, preferring the term “stable text”:
The principal document, the withdrawal agreement, runs to more than 400 pages of dense legal text. Ministers will be given an opportunity to read the documents before the meeting, and will be scrutinising them carefully to see when and how the Irish border backstop can be terminated and what is contained within its provisions.
Brexiters in the cabinet have repeatedly raised concerns that the UK must not sign up to a backstop arrangement that traps the country in a permanent customs union. They will also want to see if the agreement contains any role for the European court of justice in resolving disputes, such as over the termination of the arrangement.
An EU source confirmed that a “stable text” had been sent to London, but officials were not calling it a deal, saying full agreement at political level was still needed. “It is now about seeing if this sticks,” said the source.
What about the biggest obstacle to a deal — the need for a backstop against a hard border in Ireland? Both Ireland and the EU refused to allow the return of a hard international border between the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland province of the UK, eliminated in the 1998 Good Friday agreement that ended thirty years of sectarian and political violence. That demand had strained relations between Dublin and London, and between Belfast and London at times, too.
The Irish government is largely satisfied with the terms of this draft agreement, at least according to the Irish Times’ sources. However, it does call into question just when the UK can leave the customs union, one of its key Brexit motivations. The backstop will consist of three options but all seem to have the UK lingering in the customs union for a while:
One will be the conclusion of a long-term trade agreement between the EU and UK, the terms of which would guarantee no border checks on trade.
Sources in Dublin believe that the outline agreement offers sufficient guarantees in relation to the Border.
The backstop agreed – the mechanism to ensure this – centres on the so-called UK-wide arrangement, where the whole of the UK would remain in a customs union with the EU for a period after Brexit.
Specific other measures will be included for Northern Ireland.
Just how will this get accomplished? Raidió Telefís Éireann’s Tony Connelly explained the broad strokes on Twitter earlier today:
It’s understood there is one overall backstop to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. It will be in the form of a UK-wide customs arrangement, but will have “deeper” provisions for Northern Ireland on the customs and regulatory side.
— Tony Connelly (@tconnellyRTE) November 13, 2018
There may be provisions relating to Northern Ireland within the text and within annexes to take account of a scenario whereby the UK-wide customs arrangement does not sufficiently avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, @rtenews understands.
— Tony Connelly (@tconnellyRTE) November 13, 2018
Hmmm. “Provisions” and “annexes” will certainly be on the minds of Brexiters who wanted a full and relatively immediate divorce from the EU. Regaining control of borders and immigration may have been the most pressing issue, but trade sovereignty was a big part of that vote, too.
We’ll know more later this evening and tomorrow, when May’s ministers all have had a chance to review the 400-page draft and choose whether they can support it. DUP leader Nigel Dobbs calls it “a very, very hard sell,” even without seeing the deal first, and probably means it in both senses of the phrase. If May pulls this off, she might well solidify her perch with the Tories and their position as the leader of the governing coalition with the DUP. If not, however, this might wind up as yet another Chequers plan debacle, only this one on her home turf. Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Semitism can only keep her safe from the consequences of failure for so long, after all.
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