Belfast fudge secures Brexit deal

Theresa May managed to secure a deal to begin discussing the UK’s future relationship with the EU last Friday. Both sides agreed to move on to trade negotiations after Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party agreed to amendments over the Irish border issue, notes Tom Embury-Dennis on Independent.co.uk.

Talks ground to a halt last Monday after the DUP objected to a deal that treated Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. The phrase that so angered the DUP – “regulatory alignment” – has now been replaced with “no new regulatory barriers”. That means regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain will be possible “if and when UK law moves away from EU law – but only if Stormont, Northern Ireland’s parliament, agrees”.

May admitted that “specific solutions to what are the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland” were yet to be found, implying the deal was “partly a fudge”. Brexit minister David Davis, undermined it, commenting that it was more a “statement of intent” than legally binding. He was later forced to clarify his remark after EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the EU would “not accept any backtracking” on the joint report.

Generally, however, there was a sense of relief at what had been accomplished, says Rowena Mason in The Guardian. Michael Gove and Boris Johnson led senior Brexit supporters in congratulating May on the deal, and their praise means she has “pulled off the difficult trick of satisfying the Brexit supporters in her cabinet for now as well as EU leaders”.

Hardline Brexiteers were reassured by May’s statement that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. They took it to mean the withdrawal agreement is only valid if there is a wider trade deal. 

While Britain has made a series of “spectacular concessions” – the divorce bill, the influence of the European courts – to move talks on to trade discussions, the idea that the EU has given nothing in return is wrong, says Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times.

Agreeing to a two-year transition period after the UK formally leaves the EU in March 2019 is a “big gift”, given the potential job losses risked by a hard Brexit. The transition deal has yet to be ratified by EU leaders, but assuming it stays “it greatly eases the pressure” on May’s government. Difficult discussions lie ahead, however. There is still a “contradiction at the heart of the British position, which maintains that the UK will leave the EU’s single market and customs union while also preventing a hard border between Norther Ireland and the Irish Republic”. Resolving this could split the Conservative party and throw Brexit talks “into chaos”.

Nonetheless, says Rachman, “having witnessed many Brussels dramas”, a familiar pattern is emerging. It consists of a series of “apparent crises” which are resolved via redrafted texts and eventually pushed “past a bamboozled public”. Brexit won’t be a “triumphant clean break”, but nor will it be a “bitter rupture”. Rather, it will be a long, hard, bureaucratic slog.

The transition phase “between membership and whatever follows” is the “real prize”, according to Janan Ganesh, also in the FT. Ultimately, the UK still faces a choice,  and it’s not an attractive one: a trade deal that “diminishes its access to the world’s largest internal market”, or Norwegian-style membership of that market which comes with a hefty price tag but no say on the rules that govern it.

The longer the transition lasts, the greater the likelihood of “some deus ex machina that creates a more pleasing solution”– perhaps a decline in net immigration that changes the domestic debate, or the “emergence of a new tier” of EU membership. A managed delay would allow Leavers to say Britain is on its way out and Remainers to console themselves with the remoteness of the actual exit. It gives businesses a degree of certainty, too. So, “why not prolong the journey and hope [for] a diversion to somewhere better?”

Time for Corbyn to come off the fence

Jeremy Corbyn did “everything in his power” to bring about a hard Brexit, yet his views on the fundamental questions it raises remain as “hard to grasp” as a “bar of soap”, says Tom Brake on Independent.co.uk. His ambiguity has left his party “at war over what type of Brexit it should support”.

Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer made “soothing noises” about wanting to maintain the “benefits” of single market membership last month, notes Ned Simons on HuffingtonPost.co.uk. Yet Corbyn ordered Labour MPs to vote against the UK staying in the single market and customs union because it would mean accepting the free movement of people, which would “not respect the result of the referendum”.

 It’s about time Corbyn made his mind up, says Matthew Norman on Independent.co.uk. Starmer has done “as well as he could at turning the government’s scattergun cluelessness against itself”, but to “inflict real damage” he needs ammunition, preferably in the form of an official policy “endorsing the softest available Brexit and closest post-Brexit relationship with Europe”. It is rumoured that Corbyn, like Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, has “shifted his anti-Brussels stance – or had it shifted by a visitation from the Spirit of Hard Brexit Christmas Yet To Come: the impoverished sub-Cratchit Yuletide in which the plump, juicy bird is replaced by processed turkey slices”.

 The reason for the ambiguity is that so far it has served Labour well, says Rafael Behr in The Guardian. “Corbyn’s roots are in the vintage-left Eurosceptic tradition, but his fortune has been made by a new, instinctively Europhile generation”. Labour fought the last election with a manifesto that was “explicitly but not ostentatiously pro-Brexit” while the campaign largely ignored the issue.

That enabled Labour to reassure Leavers in its traditional heartlands while “scooping up votes” from Remainers wanting to thwart Theresa May.

Still, Labour cannot “lurk in the shadow of Tory disunity forever”. May’s Brexit path is about to become clearer, and then Labour will “have a duty” to end its prevarications. It will have to “follow or lead”.