Two and a half years after the Brexit referendum vote, Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed a draft withdrawal deal with the European Union. It is important to stress two points: first that it only considers the withdrawal terms, not the future trading relationship with the EU; and secondly that for the moment it is only a draft deal.
Much of the media has speculated that the deal will never be finalised – it has to be endorsed by the leaders of the other 27 EU member states (which is unlikely to be a problem) and then go through the House of Commons. That may not happen. But it might. For this, lots of Labour MPs would have to support the Prime Minister and defy Jeremy Corbyn, balancing out those Conservative MPs who vote against their Prime Minister. That outcome is perfectly possible – in which case the British political system might be reshaped.
These matters are for another time, though. For now we need to focus on what is in the draft withdrawal agreement. Although the UK leaves the EU at the end of March 2019, an implementation period will continue until the end of 2020, during which time the UK will operate as if it is still an EU member (though without the capacity to have a say in EU rule making). If the UK requests it, the implementation period may be extended.
A so-called ‘backstop’ is designed to prevent there being a ‘hard’ or controlled border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. A trade agreement – which can only be negotiated after the UK leaves the EU next year – might mean that the backstop never comes into effect.
Whether or not a backstop is required, the UK, the EU and Ireland have agreed to the continuation of the Common Travel Area. This means that British and Irish citizens will still have enhanced rights and privileges in each others’ countries. Those citizens will continue to have the right to live, work, study and access social security and health services in the other state. In addition, ‘frontier workers’ will have existing rights unaffected. That means people living in the Republic and working in Northern Ireland, but who are nationals of other EU states, will be able to continue to do so – and that is true whether they are employed or self-employed. This affects a number of people working in and around Derry.
The withdrawal agreement also stresses that it respects what it describes as “the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and its successors in full” – a reference to the St Andrew’s Agreement and the Fresh Start Agreement. “We have been clear that the best way to meet those commitments is through a deep and special future economic partnership which applies between the UK and the EU as a whole,” explains the withdrawal deal. Moreover, there are “commitments…. to current and future PEACE and INTERREG funding programmes.” This is an important hint to continued funding for Northern Ireland charities supporting peace and reconciliation schemes and also for new money for cross-border infrastructure and skills programmes supported by both the EU and the UK government.
While all these points are vital for many, the public focus on the withdrawal deal has been on what it means about trade – even though the trade negotiations have not yet formally begun. The UK will continue to be part of the EU’s Customs Union until at least the end of 2020. Should the UK in future leave the Customs Union, Northern Ireland will remain within it, while also being able to operate within the UK’s internal market. There is a commitment that Northern Ireland will continue to abide by EU legislation on industrial, environmental and agricultural goods. Northern Ireland will also apply a limited amount of EU regulation related to the movement of goods.
There is a mix of good and bad news in terms of what the withdrawal agreement says about the relationship of UK nationals with other EU nations. Those UK nationals who already live in other EU countries (not including Ireland, where the more generous rules of the Common Travel Area apply) will be permitted to continue to do so, providing they have done so for a continuous period of five years by the end of the implementation period and have not broken the law while residing there. Close family members will be able to join them. (The definition is spouses, civil and unmarried partners, dependent children and grandchildren, and dependent parents and grandparents.) The same rights will be given to nationals of other EU member states living in the UK.
But for most people the right to use the European Health Insurance Card is not included in the withdrawal agreement beyond the end of the implementation period. One other point of significance is that the UK will meet its legal commitments to the European Commission at a likely cost of £35bn to £39bn.
The latest Holywell Trust Brexit podcast provides further explanation of the withdrawal agreement. In addition it includes interviews with John Campbell, the BBC’s economics editor in Northern Ireland, on the economic impact to date of the Brexit decision and Dr Kurt Huebner, who suggests that a united Ireland is now more financially beneficial. Claire McCann, of the Human Rights Consortium in Northern Ireland, warns us of the damage from Brexit to the rights of people in Northern Ireland. And Eamonn McCann of People Before Profit becomes the first advocate of Brexit – and Irexit, the proposition that Ireland should also leave the EU – to accept an invitation to appear on the podcast.
The podcast can be listened to at https://soundcloud.com/holywelltrust/holywell-podcast-brexit-focus-ep-12/s-sdfic .