The European Council, which brings together national leaders, has agreed at a meeting in Brussels that sufficient progress has been made to proceed to phase two of Brexit negotiations. This followed a deal struck between the UK and the European Commission on December 8. Academic experts react to the news and the outline for the next phase of the negotiations.
The EU27 perspective
Nieves Perez-Solorzano, Senior Lecturer in European Politics, University of Bristol
There are no surprises in the document agreed by the leaders of the 27 EU countries (EU27) at the European Council. They have followed the European Commission’s recommendations and are speaking with one voice. The document confirms that phase two of the Brexit talks is not a trade negotiation but a negotiation of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU – and the EU is solidly in control of the negotiating timetable.
Here are three things to watch out for in the next few months. First, respect for the agreements arrived at in phase one is a condition for Brexit negotiations to progress. While the principle of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” remains, the EU expects the UK to continue negotiating in good faith.
Second, the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, confirmed that “real negotiations” on the second phase will begin in March 2018. This means that if the negotiation timetable is not altered, there will only be seven months for the UK’s withdrawal agreement to be negotiated and agreed by October 2018, to give it sufficient time to be ratified by the scheduled date of Brexit – March 29, 2019.
This means it is not in the UK government’s interest to enshrine the Brexit date into the EU Withdrawal Bill currently making its way through parliament, because doing so would prevent any option to extend the Brexit negotiations should time run out.
Third, the broad terms of the two-year transition period have been set by the EU27. It wants the UK to remain in the customs union and the single market, abiding by the relevant EU legislation without being at the decision-making table. Meanwhile, the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU will continue. For the UK government to shape the transition period in any meaningful way it needs to provide the EU27 with a clear and detailed vision of its future relationship with the EU as soon as possible.
What next for the UK?
Jamie Gaskarth, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Birmingham
For a brief moment, Theresa May can breathe a sigh of relief. Getting through the first stage of talks was no mean feat. But there are four Ps she will need to address in the next stage.
Firstly, preparation for a hard Brexit. This is not just a negotiating ploy but a necessity. While the aim will be for a soft Brexit and a trade deal acceptable to both parties, the UK government should make concrete preparations for a “no-deal” scenario. She must not repeat David Cameron’s mistake during the referendum of avoiding contingency planning for a negative result – life doesn’t always go to plan.
Secondly, she must get the politics right. So far, there has been no serious effort to reach across the party divide and come to an agreed national position. It is good that the government is (finally) having a cabinet meeting to thrash out what sort of trade deal it wants, but this cannot just be a decision for the Conservative party. Most of the major parties have internal conflicts over Brexit. The government must work with them or face continual House of Commons defeats while the EU dominates the information war.
Linked to this is personnel. Appointing the most ideological figures to manage Brexit has backfired spectacularly, feeding division and exposing their individual limitations. It’s not too late to have a radical shake up for phase two, bringing in a big hitter like a former prime minister, EU commissioner or business leader to show the EU that the UK means business. The most demanding negotiation in recent British history requires the best people from across the political spectrum.
Lastly, the UK must fight harder for its priorities in the talks. If the UK can show it could walk away if necessary, that it has unified enough of the country behind it and put the right people in charge it will be much better equipped to push the agenda. The priority must be trade negotiations from now on, with an emphasis on financial services.
Economy and trade
Robert Ackrill, Professor of European Economics and Policy, Nottingham Trent University
The communiqué released following the latest European Council meeting provides confirmation that the Brexit negotiations can move on to the next phase. Crucially, discussion can begin over the shape of a future trade agreement between the UK and EU27.
These talks will not begin until March 2018, something that some people have already criticised for being too far off. On the other hand, as pointed out by some members of the UK opposition, Theresa May’s government has not even decided yet what sort of agreement it wants on trade.
The communiqué confirms that the December 8 agreement must be respected in full and put into law as swiftly as possible. Given the need to avoid reintroducing physical barriers between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, given Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) demands that nothing must weaken the unity of the UK, and given that the UK has committed itself to life outside of the single market and customs union, the UK government is facing an impossible trilogy.
Currently, the UK cannot have all three of those outcomes – something must give.
Following the announcement of agreement at the summit, sterling rose, only to drop back again as Juncker spoke about the challenges ahead. The Irish border issue encapsulates some of the key big challenges to be addressed. But when the talks get down to the level of detail required for a comprehensive trade deal (which includes the quality of things such as bull semen), it is hard to see how any sort of deal at all could be in place by March 2019.
However hard it was to get the talks to this point, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
The Irish border
Etain Tannam, Lecturer in International Peace Studies, Trinity College Dublin
Despite contrary claims by David Davis in the week following the deal between the UK and the Commission, this latest announcement emphasises that protecting the soft border in Ireland and recognising the status of the Good Friday Agreement must be legally enshrined in the final Brexit deal. There will be no completion of the deal otherwise.
The influence of the Irish government continues to dominate – and it’s clear that, just as the Irish government had a de facto veto over whether the talks could move to phase two, so too will the Irish government continue to have a de facto veto over the next stage. The creative ambiguity of the agreement is at the heart of its success – it can be sold as all things to all people. But therein also lie its risks.
The Brexit negotiations have highlighted two key factors with respect to Northern Ireland and British-Irish relations: i. The influence a small state can have in the EU; ii. That although the two governments will seek to mend any fences and seek to preserve close relations, it is unlikely that the relationship will revert to its former pre-Brexit closeness.
Most tellingly, but hardly surprisingly, when asked in the context of Brexit if the UK was still Ireland’s “best friend” the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said that as an EU member state, the other EU states were Ireland’s best friends. Since Brexit, for the first time in over 40 years, Ireland and the UK are on opposite sides of the bargaining table.