Thursday

9th Feb 2023

Knives out on all sides for draft Brexit deal

  • Theresa May faces crunch cabinet meeting at 2PM on Wednesday, as EU ambassadors also meet in Brussels (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

British politicians from almost all sides have denounced a draft Brexit deal agreed between London and Brussels on Tuesday (13 November), raising the risk of a messy outcome.

Details of the 585-page "withdrawal agreement" will not be made public until British leader Theresa May first discusses it with her cabinet on Wednesday.

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  • More than 400 pages of Brexit "technical" accord to be made public later today (Photo: European Commission)

"Cabinet will meet at 2PM ... to consider the draft agreement the negotiating teams have reached in Brussels, and to decide on next steps," May's spokesman said.

"Cabinet ministers have been invited to read documentation ahead of that meeting," he added.

But leaks indicate the UK will remain inside the EU's customs union, obliged to follow its trade rules, until at least the end of a transition period in 2020.

Any termination of the so-called 'backstop' arrangement will be decided by an arbitration committee made up of equal numbers of British and EU delegates.

Northern Ireland will also have a special status, with even deeper EU obligations, within the new customs bloc in order to prevent the return of a hard border with Ireland.

The DUP, a unionist party in Northern Ireland which supports May's minority government in Westminster, led the attack on Tuesday.

The plan would "fundamentally undermine the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom", its leader, Arlene Foster, said.

"The United Kingdom would be handcuffed to the European Union with Brussels holding the keys," she added, referring to the arbitration committee.

May's government depends on DUP parliamentarians to stay in power.

But her fall could equally come about if cabinet members resigned in large numbers after Wednesday's meeting.

The potential rebels include her Brexit negotiator Dominic Raab, home affairs minister Sajid Javid, trade minister Liam Fox, and foreign minister Jeremy Hunt, with Hunt, among others, said to be eyeing her job.

Meanwhile, hardline Brexiteers in May's party resorted to DUP-like emotional rhetoric as news of the accord came out.

"It's worse than [EU] membership," Steve Baker, a senior Tory MP, said.

"All Conservative MPs should ... say no to this capitulation," David Davis, the former Brexit negotiator, said.

"It's vassal state stuff," Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister noted.

It would make the UK "not a vassal state, but a slave state", Jacob Rees-Mogg, another MP chimed in.

It was "the worst deal in history," British eurosceptic MEP Nigel Farage said.

'Shambolic'

Hostility to the draft text also came in from the opposition Labour and Scottish National Party (SNP).

"From what we know of the shambolic handling of these negotiations, this is unlikely to be a good deal for the country," Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said.

"If the PM's 'deal' satisfies no-one and can't command a majority, we mustn't fall for her spin that the UK crashing out of EU without a deal is then inevitable - instead we should take the opportunity to get better options back on the table," SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon warned.

Jo Johnson, the former minister for railways, who opposed Brexit, also called the draft deal EU "vassalage" in his resignation statement earlier this month.

Julian Smith, an MP who is May's 'chief whip' - in charge of mustering Tory support - was more optimistic, however.

"We are on the cusp of delivering Brexit in a really practical way. She [May] has stuck with it through a really tough year or two," he told press.

Andrea Leadsom, in charge of passing Tory legislation through parliament, and transport secretary Chris Grayling were also upbeat.

Gauntlet

If May survives Wednesday's cabinet meeting, her deal will then have to pass a "meaningful vote" in parliament in December.

But the 27 other EU countries will likewise have to give support for the accord to fly, with France, Germany, Denmark, Ireland, and the Netherlands said to harbour concerns that small print could give the UK an unfair competitive advantage on social and environmental norms in future.

The European Parliament will also hold a vote on the final outcome.

The ambassadors of the 27 other EU states will meet in Brussels on Wednesday to give their first thoughts.

If things go well in the Brexit gauntlet, then a political accord could be reached by all sides at a special EU summit on 24 or 25 November, leaving enough time for the EU-27 to ratify the text prior to the UK's departure in March.

But if May falls and Britain becomes embroiled in a Tory leadership contest, snap elections, or wrangling over a second referendum, the UK could crash out with no deal in place.

No deal

That would see some form of hard border between the Republic of Ireland (in the EU) and Northern Ireland, jeopardising a peace agreement there which ended decades of sectarian violence.

It could see Scotland call a second independence referendum, threatening to break up the UK.

It could also cause chaos in industrial supply chains, air and rail transport, and financial services for both the UK and the EU, as well as a political rift across the English Channel at an already difficult time in European and world politics.

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