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Open Europe's Aarti Shankar argues the UK-EU Political Declaration leaves open a variety of models for the future relationship, on a spectrum broadly between a Canada-style FTA and a limited version of the government's Chequers proposal. The key question will be whether this model is on offer to the whole of the UK - including Northern Ireland.
22 November 2018
Prime Minister Theresa May today announced that the UK and the European Commission have agreed the terms of the Political Declaration on future UK-EU relations. A leaked version of the declaration sets out a spectrum of possibilities for the future partnership, ranging from a “Canada-plus” comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, to what might be termed a “Chequers-minus” deal. Where the final agreement falls on this scale will depend broadly on how far the UK is willing to align with EU rules, and, correspondingly, how much it would accept in terms of level playing field obligations and an indirect role for the European Court of Justice.
The text does not provide a clear path to a Norway-plus agreement, where the UK remains integrated in the four freedoms of the EU single market. For instance, explicit reference is made to the fact that a future agreement should “ensure the sovereignty of the UK and the protection of its internal market…including with regard to the development of its independent trade policy and the ending of free movement of people.” However, the inclusion of an evolution clause does allow the UK and EU to go beyond the structure of cooperation set out in the declaration, if both sides decided it was in their mutual interest to do so.
The Political Declaration does not signpost the economic elements of the UK government’s Chequers proposal. In particular, no reference is made to achieving “frictionless” trade in goods between the UK and the EU or a “common rulebook.” This is a concession for the UK government, but it helps to set discussions on a realistic path. Frictionless bilateral trade was not an achievable goal as long as the UK maintained its position to exit the EU’s single market and obtain an independent trade policy, given the EU’s principle of the “indivisibility of the four freedoms.”
However, questions remain as to how such a future partnership would interact with the Irish backstop, and whether it would be available to the whole of the UK – including Northern Ireland. The commitment to consider whether “facilitative arrangements and technologies” help address the Irish border is a concession to the UK – but it is unlikely to offer any additional reassurance to the Democratic Unionist Party that the Northern Ireland-specific elements of the backstop would not enter into force.
Open Europe considers some of the key points of the Political Declaration below.
EU member states must still give their endorsement before this is formally signed off – this is expected to happen at this Sunday’s special EU summit. It will then be for UK parliamentarians to consider the text alongside the Withdrawal Agreement, before it heads to the European Parliament. The direction of travel set out today may help the Prime Minister secure the support of some of her Eurosceptic backbenchers, but it is far from clear that enough has been done to win over the DUP, or otherwise ease the passage of the Withdrawal deal through parliament.
While the Political Declaration remains a non-binding text, it will serve as an important steer in negotiations on the future relationship. As it currently stands, this document envisages an ambitious free trade relationship between the UK and the EU, but one much less integrated than the status-quo. The important question will be whether such an arrangement will be on offer for the whole of the UK – including Northern Ireland.