Thursday, October 17, 2019

Just how much does Boris Johnson's deal concede to the EU?

Publish on The Daily Telegraph

Despite endless claims that it would refuse to renegotiate the binding part of Theresa May’s deal, the EU has finally engaged, and granted Boris Johnson some important changes. Here’s an overview of both the “wins” the PM secured as well as the concessions he made. Though the DUP are not yet on board, these proposals are likely to form the basis of any final deal.
First of all, British negotiators managed to persuade the EU to agree that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the UK’s customs territory permanently, meaning that residents of Northern Ireland will enjoy all the benefits of trade deals negotiated by the UK. It will gain the right to an independent trade policy, from 2021 on at the earliest, or 2023, if the transition is extended.
In return, however, the UK government conceded to customs checks in the Irish Sea, on top of regulatory checks; Northern Ireland will, de facto, remain in the EU’s single market.

But for that to be acceptable and democratic, however, both sides have agreed a mechanism to provide “consent” to the residents of Northern Ireland. This would involve giving the Northern Irish Assembly the right to leave the arrangement, if there is a simple majority for that - but, only six years at the earliest after the end of the transition period, meaning in 2027 or 2029. A “cooling off period” of two years would follow any vote to leave the arrangement, four years after the transition. That the EU and Ireland have conceded to a unilateral exit mechanism linked to a time limit is a significant compromise.
DUP MPs are clearly unhappy at failing to secure a “veto” over this, claiming that it contravenes the Good Friday Agreement because “majority rule on this single issue alone” is provided in the deal instead. If this were the case, however, then surely the DUP should realise that any veto for the unionist side would necessitate a “veto” for the republican side too?
From the point of view that the Good Friday Agreement requires both sides to agree to fundamental changes to Northern Ireland’s status, what has been agreed would represent a compromise. This Brexit would deliver meaningful change, alongside serious steps to mitigate trade disruption and ensure that the Northern Irish can enjoy any fruits of EU departure, such as lower tariffs.
The DUP wants a vote before the arrangement enters into force, but surely the Irish-minded community would also need to be on board? If they are not, perhaps something closer to the status quo – reconciled with Brexit being delivered – isn’t such an unfair compromise?
Any goods entering Northern Ireland will face EU-level tariffs but a system of rebates will be worked out so that Northern Irish businesses and residents can enjoy lower UK tariffs. Goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be subject to checks, all to prevent checks on the land border on the island of Ireland.
To soften all this, the EU has made an important concession, that personal goods and goods that “will not be subject to commercial processing in Northern Ireland” will not be checked. The details will all be decided by a “Joint Committee” of EU and UK officials, so the EU will still have a say in this, another argument for the DUP not to agree to the deal, even if they seemed quite open to the idea of intra-UK customs checks.
In this way, the EU is effectively tolerating some leaks in its already leaky external barrier. The EU's Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier openly admits that "we cannot totally eliminate the risks". This is exactly the kind of flexibility needed to solve the complex Northern Irish puzzle, so perhaps with more flexibility from the EU’s side, the DUP could be brought on board after all.
Another issue that presented itself at the last minute was VAT, even if one diplomat did claim that this really was a sideshow or smoke screen for another problem in London (the DUP). Here, the agreed compromise is that EU law on VAT will apply in Northern Ireland, the UK will be responsible for collecting it, but the UK will be able to apply Ireland's VAT reduced rates and exemptions in NI, so the “tampon tax” can remain abolished there.
Throughout the negotiations, the EU – and in particular France – has been pushing for so-called “level playing field” arrangements. In theory at least, the UK conceded to such an arrangement, which involves not diverging greatly from EU environmental and social regulations. In practice, however, this won’t be enforceable, given that it is only part of the non-binding political declaration. Theresa May’s level playing field was still part of the binding part of the deal and by getting rid of the backstop, Boris Johnson can also claim to have removed the role of the European Court of Justice, at least for Great Britain, as otherwise the UK would have outsourced its trade policy to the EU – and therefore also its top court.  
In any case, Boris Johnson's strategy of showing that the UK was serious about no-deal, has - fundamentally - worked, even if the EU and Ireland need to be credited for having engaged. The question is whether DUP will get another chance to influence the process. Should a majority in Parliament vote this down, then EU leaders could perhaps make one final move in the direction of the DUP, just before the end of October. Yet changing parliamentary arithmetic could well see the DUP MPs lose their strategic clout, should a general election follow the failure to deliver Brexit on October 31. 
Finally, the EU has dropped all talk of further extension. Just yesterday, German officials were arguing that at least another two months were needed, yet Jean-Claude Juncker came out emphatically against the idea of delay when questioned about it earlier today.   
If the House of Commons agrees this Saturday, Brexit will be done on time.

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