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Brexiteers worry that the EU's withdrawal agreement will turn the UK into a 'vassal state' - but what does that mean?

The draft agreement has been denounced across Britain’s political spectrum since it was unveiled on Wednesday night

DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds in Westminster earlier this year.
DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds in Westminster earlier this year.
Image: PA Images

AFTER TWO YEARS of negotiations, Britan’s departure from the European Union finally progressed this week when draft withdrawal terms were agreed between both sides.

The draft agreement covers the terms under which Britain will leave the EU next March, including arrangements about the backstop, a financial settlement for leaving the bloc, and the rights of British citizens in Europe.

However, the draft agreement has been denounced across Britain’s political spectrum since it was unveiled on Wednesday night.

Among the biggest critics of the deal have been the DUP, who have been supporting Theresa May’s government under a confidence-and-supply arrangement since last year.

Hitting out at the arrangement in the House of Commons yesterday, the party’s leader in Westminster, Nigel Dodds, accused May of facilitating the breakup of the UK.

“We stand up for the United Kingdom, the whole of the United Kingdom, the integrity of the United Kingdom or we vote for a vassal state with the break-up of the UK,” he said.

It wasn’t the first time this week the phrase “vassal state” was used to describe developments in Brussels.

On Tuesday, Boris Johnson, who resigned as foreign secretary after May’s Chequers plan was announced in July, said he believed a potential agreement was “vassal state stuff”.

Interestingly, the phrase was used the same day in a tweet by French president Emmanuel Macron, who said that being allied to the US did not mean “being a vassal state”.

So what does it mean?

Here’s how the phrase is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary:

1 [noun] A holder of land by feudal tenure on conditions of homage and allegiance
1.1 [as modifier] A person or country in a subordinate position to another

And here’s how it’s defined in the US-based Merriam-Webster:

a state with varying degrees of independence in its internal affairs but dominated by another state in its foreign affairs and potentially wholly subject to the dominating state

Historically, the term comes from feudal times, when a “vassal” was someone who held land if they promised allegiance to a prince or king, with obligations often including military support in exchange for certain privileges.

Usage of the term developed over time to refer to those who were subordinate to others, and it featured as such in Sonnet 58 by William Shakespeare, when the bard called himself a “vassal” to his lover.

Politically, a number of empires set up vassal states over time, which were based on tribes, kingdoms, or city-states controlling subjects without having to conquer or govern them.

The country that became a vassal state lost an independent say in its foreign policy, while also providing troops or paying tribute when the ‘senior ally’ asked them to.

In the current sense, there’s nothing to suggest that any of this will happen under the terms of the draft withdrawal agreement.

Just don’t be surprised if the term continues to pop up between now and Britain’s departure from the EU.

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