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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C

A Brexit bind: Here are the reasons why we haven't had a deal yet

There’s a Brexit deal on the table, but it looks increasingly unlikely that it will get through the House of Commons.

Brexit PA Wire / PA Images The Bollocks To Brexit bus arrives in Dover as it tours around the UK. 14 December 2018. PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

WE’RE JUST ABOUT three months away from 29 March, which is the legal deadline by which the UK must leave the European Union.

For the past two years, the UK has been hammering out the terms and conditions for leaving the economic, customs, trade and immigration agreement they have with the 27 other member states through being part of the European Union.

Although the EU and UK negotiating teams, the 27 EU leaders, and UK Prime Minister Theresa May have agreed to support the Brexit deal, there has been a growing backlash against the deal due to concerns that the backstop could lead to the UK being permanently locked into an indefinite customs deal, or Northern Ireland being carved off from Great Britain.

Unless there’s a dramatic change (of which we haven’t been short), the UK will be out of the European Union by 30 March 2019, deal or no deal.

Both sides have agreed that a no-deal scenario is the worst outcome for everyone, but since June this year, it’s become an increasingly likely outcome. Here’s why that is, and why the deal on the table looks so unfavourable.

It’s a worst-of-both-worlds Brexit

The proposal for a deal that they’ve achieved has been described as “Frankenstein’s monster”: a creation made partly through a bizarre experiment to see how far it could go, and captivates the attention of onlookers, agape at how things unfold as time goes on.

The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, which only sets out the terms upon which the UK leaves the European Union, is seen as being too closely aligned to the EU by Brexiteers.

Brexit PA Wire / PA Images Nigel Farage speaks at a Leave Means Leave Save Brexit rally. PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

The deal cuts off the free movement of people, which means that the UK wouldn’t be allowed access to the Single Market; disputes about EU law would go before the European Court of Justice; and the issue of fisheries, which has been called the UK’s strongest hand, is the only issue for which there has been no agreement.

Last week, Theresa May postponed the crucial House of Commons vote MPs have on her Brexit deal when it looked as though as many as 100 Tories would vote against her.

Two days later, 117 MPs voted to say they had no confidence in her as Tory leader.

Then there are the MPs who oppose Brexit altogether. They are starting to think that if they reject the deal in the House of Commons vote, their chances of getting a second referendum are higher.

Since the postponed vote, the UK media have been reporting that there are secret preparations for a second referendum, despite Theresa May’s public declarations that holding a second vote would do “irreparable damage” to the integrity British politics.

EU-UK tensions have soared

A breakdown in goodwill and trust between the UK and EU has also contributed to the Brexit deal stalemate we’re in now. There’s a lack of trust from both sides, whether justified or not, as is evidenced by the row over the backstop.

But that row has been going on for some time now.

After David Davis resigned as Brexit Secretary in July this year and Dominic Raab took his place, it seemed as though negotiations were put on firmer ground.

There were reports of chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier getting on better with Raab, press conferences together seemed warmer than with Davies.

Michel Barnier And Dominic Raab Press Conference - Brussels Monasse Thierry / ANDBZ/ABACA Former Brexit Minister Dominic Raab and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in September. Monasse Thierry / ANDBZ/ABACA / ANDBZ/ABACA

But in the run up to the Salzburg summit, things took a turn. That’s something both sides do agree on. 

Speaking to the Telegraph’s Brexit Podcast this month, Dominic Raab, said that he had been given political assurances that the backstop would be time limited, but that EU and UK officials began leading negotiations in the lead up to the Salzburg summit.

When we got to September in the lead up to the Salzburg summit, [negotiations] frayed a little bit, because we were being led much more by officials. And there’s a huge role for officials… but I think as we got close to the Salzburg summit, and certainly after as we addressed and approached the October Council, I think it was very clear to me that we needed a political closure to this deal. We didn’t have that and I think it probably accounts for the failure at Salzburg. 

The summit at Salzburg was organised to discuss the Irish backstop (which hadn’t been agreed then), but ended up with EU leaders criticising Theresa May’s Chequers plan in a move that reportedly “blindsided” the Prime Minister, and culminated in her firing back with a statement from 10 Downing Street, saying that she expected to be treated with respect.

“The EU have played a good game,” Raab said on the podcast. “We haven’t been tough enough or clear enough. We could have won this backstop argument, even as late as July.” 

At the time of the summit, EU Council President Donald Tusk said something similar: “The UK stance presented just before and during the Salzburg meeting was surprisingly tough, and in fact uncompromising.”

What’s at the heart of Brexit?

On 23 June 2016, what did the 51% of people who voted for Brexit actually vote for?

Was it increased sovereignty by limiting the rules and regulations of the EU, to limit immigration, or to “take back control” of its waters? Was it all three?

The most accurate answer is we’re not sure, but we can take a good guess, and that’s what MPs have been doing. The problem here arises when we hear MPs say that this Brexit deal doesn’t represent what people voted for – although that may be true, it’s not clear what the UK electorate did vote for on 23 June.

Brexit David Cheskin European leaders should not seek retribution on the UK over post-Brexit fishing arrangements, a group of Scottish fishermen argued last weekend. David Cheskin

But let’s take the examples above as the most commonly cited reasons for Brexit.

On sovereignty, the UK will gain more control over who enters its country, who fishes in its waters, and what laws it enforces as a result of Brexit (if Brexiteers succeed in pushing for an alternative deal).

There are losses attached to that: pulling out of the free movement of people commitment means they lose access to the lucrative Single Market, which is why so many multinationals have been looking to move their headquarters to other European capitals, including Dublin. So they get sovereignty, but at a cost.

Since the Brexit vote, immigration from EU countries has fallen dramatically; but simultaneously risen from non-EU countries. If the Brexit vote is to be interpreted as a desire to limit immigration, it wasn’t clear on who it wants to refuse entry to: skilled workers from the EU; people with British heritage; people from former colonies; asylum seekers fleeing war?

Finally, fishermen have expressed concern around where they would export their catches in the event of a no-deal Brexit, as the UK would be potentially cut off from the 27 countries it currently exports to.

The EU has said that it would only allow seafood exports from the UK to be tariff- and quota-free if there was an agreement, similar to its arrangement with Norway, that EU fishing fleets can continue to fish in British waters. Brexiteers would be against that arrangement.

Theresa May attends church PA Wire / PA Images Prime Minister Theresa May throws a ball for a border collie called Blitz. PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

Added to the internal struggles within each of those issues, is the separate issue for what Brexit means for Northern Ireland. The backstop is meant to ensure there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland because of Brexit.

But in order to do that, it means the UK has to follow EU rules very closely, or else Northern Ireland needs to follow a different set of customs rules and regulations than Great Britain.

Because of the confusion over what is at the heart of Brexit, it’s difficult for UK politicians to prioritise what they’re willing to compromise on.

And if no compromise is possible from the unhappy Brexiteer MPs, then it’s difficult to see how a Brexit deal can be agreed in the short timeframe left.

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