Brexit agreement drafted in turmoil

May's ministers quit en masse over divorce deal differences

Photo: EPA British PM Theresa May faces a Sisyphean task to pass the Brexit deal through House of Commons.

After 18 months of negotiations, the United Kingdom and the European Union have finally drafted a Brexit deal, which includes a financial settlement and a customs union backstop to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, news wires reported. The draft document includes 585 pages and has to ve voted by UK parliament and parliament of the other 27 EU Member States in order to get legal status.

British Prime Minister Theresa May secured the support of her cabinet last Wednesday after a more than four-hours meeting, though ministers and backbenchers have strongly criticised parts of the agreement, specifically one related to a backstop arrangement which would keep the UK in the EU's customs union. Furthermore, the situation worsened last Thursday after Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Work and Pensions Minister Esther McVey quit, saying they could not support the deal.

Their departure, the resignations of two junior ministers and reports others were considering quitting, shook May's divided government and her Brexit strategy, raising the prospect of Britain leaving the EU without a deal. Some lawmakers openly questioned whether May's government could survive. Raab is the second Brexit secretary to quit over May's plans to leave the EU, after David Davis did the same a couple of months ago.

But the PM showed little sign of backing down. In parliament she warned lawmakers they now faced a stark decision. “The choice is clear. We can choose to leave with no deal, we can risk no Brexit at all, or we can choose to unite and support the best deal that can be negotiated,” May said adding that those MPs who believed she could get a deal that did not include a backstop arrangement to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland were wrong. But lawmakers from Conservative Party as well as the opposition parties have already attacked the draft deal, a sign May faces an all but impossible task to get the agreement through the House of Commons.

Nevertheless, the reached agreement is considered to be the only possible one. It guarantees the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU. Under the deal UK citizens who have lived in the EU continuously for five years by the end of the implementation period will have the right to reside permanently in that member state. The same rules apply for EU citizens living in the UK. Workers and self-employed people will be broadly guaranteed the same rights they currently enjoy.

According to the draft document, there will be a 21-month transition period ending 31 December 2020. It could further be extended, while EU rules would continue to apply in the UK during this period. After the transition period ends, a joint committee co-chaired by the EU and the UK would police the final withdrawal agreement, taking decisions by mutual consent and whose verdicts would be binding.

As of financial regulations, the UK will participate in EU annual budgets in 2019 and 2020. Even if the transition period is extended, the UK will cease taking part in EU budget talks after 2020. The UK will pay its share of outstanding budget commitments and its share of liabilities as at the end of 2020. The entire "financial settlement" is expected to be between 35 billion to 39 billion pounds (€40-€45 billion).

Both the EU and the UK vowed to do their best to have a trade agreement in place six months before the end of the transition period, whether it is December 2020 or another agreed upon end date. If appropriate customs arrangements are not agreed to, a backstop arrangement would kick in. A joint “single customs territory” between the EU and UK would apply from the end of the transition period “unless and until… a subsequent agreement becomes applicable.”

Under the backstop arrangement, the UK must observe "level playing field" commitments on competition, state aid, taxes and employment and environment standards. The backstop plan, designed to be temporary, would prevent the implementation of a hard border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland. The UK is committed to avoiding any hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and upholding the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the peace deal that ended three decades of conflict and created the present-day political institutions.

The EU has already schedules a summit on 25 November to finalise the Brexit deal. The agreement then has to pass through the UK parliament, the stage of the process where many expect the deal to fall apart. If the agreement does survive, it's still only foreseen as a temporary stopgap to facilitate an orderly exit and allow both sides to negotiate a permanent relationship.

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