Barring any last-minute hitches, this week’s EU summit will not burn much midnight oil, at least where Brexit is concerned.
In fact, after breakfast on Friday leaders will sign off on a pact that will see the UK officially leave the European Union on 30 March next year. It will then have 21 months as a de facto member until a transition period ends in December 2020.
That a deal has actually been struck will be a relief to businesses on each side of the Channel. For the moment, it suits Theresa May’s government.
The UK gets the right to negotiate new trade agreements, though it cannot sign any until the end of the transition. That is not much of a breakthrough for London, since its trade department is in no position to broker any ambitious agreements any time soon.
The main benefit for May is that the transition kicks the major problems down the road: the Irish border question, and future trading relations.
The European Commission’s ‘backstop’ proposal on Ireland – which May said ‘no British prime minister could ever agree to’- has been accepted, in case the two sides cannot agree on a better arrangement.
The Irish border dispute has always appeared rather synthetic. The Commission’s rationale is that Northern Ireland must remain aligned with EU rules on goods in order to avoid border controls.
The UK as a whole is likely to want to remain closely aligned to the single market on goods. It is hard to imagine that a compromise, probably involving minor UK concessions, cannot be found.
More intractable a problem, meanwhile, is what to do about fisheries.
UK fisheries have not been well-served by the Common Fisheries Policy, and the industry had long been promised by Brexiteers that it would be one of the first beneficiaries of ‘taking back control’.
That promise was given up by May’s team this week. The fact that the UK will remain signed up to EU fishing quotas until at least the end of 2020 has already caused some chagrin.
“We will leave the EU and leave the CFP, but hand back sovereignty over our seas a few seconds later,” said Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation.
This is a lobby group that punches above its economic weight – the UK’s total catch is worth around €900 million per year. A number of Conservative MPs representing coastal seats in England and Scotland have already threatened to vote down any agreement that doesn’t protect UK fishermen.
To those with long memories, this has eerie parallels with 1973, when the UK fishing sector was traded away by Edward Heath during the talks that led to the UK joining the EEC.
It looks like UK fishermen are about to be shafted again by their own ministers as part of the EU exit deal.
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Look out for…
The consultative referendum on the Intelligence and Security Services Act 2017 will be held in the Netherlands tomorrow along with the municipal elections. It concerns the so-called “tapping law” on legislation, giving law enforcement authorities far-reaching surveillance powers, amongst others also allowing them to gather data covertly from large groups of people at once.
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