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Deal or no deal? Theresa May faces rebels as withdrawal agreement talks stall at “95 per cent” complete

Words by:
October 24, 2018

Negotiations with the EU have stalled after Prime Minister Theresa May offered “nothing new,” according to the President of the European Parliament, in a presentation to EU leaders at the October summit on Brexit.

EU leaders decided not to call for a further summit in November as not enough progress had been made in negotiations, though reportedly stand ready to call an ad-hoc meeting if there is a breakthrough. They reiterated their confidence in Michel Barnier as Chief Negotiator for the bloc, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel told all EU countries to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.

At home, Theresa May faces the prospect of rebellion by members of the Conservative party after her proposal for an extended transition period of 33, rather than 21, months caused outrage amongst both pro-Brexit and pro-Remain MPs. The extended period had been designed to de-toxify concerns over the Northern Irish backstop – the provisions which will come into operation if Britain and the EU are not able to negotiate a full trade agreement during the transition period. However, this proved neither acceptable to Parliament nor to Ireland. Ireland will not accept a time-limited backstop.

To placate the members of the pro-Brexit wing of her party who have threatened to depose her in retaliation for what they see as an overly soft approach to negotiations, May has committed to four ‘mini red lines’ for a backstop agreement. Any backstop must contain:

  • A legally binding commitment to the EU-UK temporary customs arrangement.
  • An option to extend the implementation period as an alternative to the backstop.
  • An ability for the UK to leave at will.
  • Full access for all Northern Irish businesses to Great Britain.

May meanwhile has said the EU withdrawal agreement is “95 per cent” complete, with the backstop for the Irish border among the final details to be settled.

Irish news site RTE has today reported that the EU will offer a UK-wide customs union as a way around the Irish backstop issue, but it will have to be negotiated beyond the withdrawal agreement as a separate treaty. Such an agreement may not meet May’s first mini red line.

WA’s analysis

May’s mini red lines promised to the Commons yesterday, reportedly taken by the EU as a snub, and her position on the Irish backstop mean that unless either side gives ground there is little prospect of a Brexit deal being reached within current timeframes.

Only a backstop without a time limit will be acceptable to the Irish government, which has a veto over whether to accept the final withdrawal agreement as all EU countries must agree for it to pass. Indeed, the Irish Prime Minister has reiterated his commitment to this position today.

It is also doubtful the withdrawal agreement as it currently stands can pass a vote in Parliament. Labour has said it will only vote for a deal which keeps closer ties to the EU, such as the UK remaining in the customs agreement and single market. In addition, 44 backbench Conservatives are now members of Stand Up for Brexit, a campaign group whose pledges are incompatible with the Chequers agreement.

While there is still the possibility Britain and the EU will be able to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides, the latest developments increase the likelihood of a no-deal scenario.

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