Friday’s agreement on the first phase of the Brexit talks provides some long-awaited substance, following the months of hypothesising we have been obliged to engage in to understand what the UK government is working towards.
In that respect, what is more extraordinary about the deal is that Theresa May and David Davis have taken so long to agree what the EU had sought from the start.
On the financial settlement, for instance, the UK government began by not accepting the principle that it owed the EU anything. After Theresa May’s interim Florence speech offer, she has now agreed a methodology with the EU to pay what the UK had always owed.
If the UK government had accepted earlier what it has agreed now, the Brexit talks could have moved on much sooner – a crucial point, since the two-year clock is ticking.
The bottom line of Friday’s agreement (formally the ‘joint report’) is that the Brexit negotiations can move on to the next step – only that. It does not mean a soft Brexit is necessarily more likely or that the prospect of ‘no deal’ has vanished (although its chances are perhaps reduced).
Nicola Sturgeon has stated in response that Brexit arrangements made for Northern Ireland should be available to other parts of the UK, and that the UK government’s commitment to preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland now rules out a future hard border between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK.
However, there are obstacles to both of those arguments.
One is that the EU is looking for a consistent Brexit deal. It recognises that the history of Northern Ireland requires specific arrangements, but it won’t likely accept a patchwork Brexit where for instance Scotland, Wales and London have different arrangements than the rest of England.
Another is that this last-minute deal is a set of understandings connected with future Brexit talks. If the negotiations ultimately fail and the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, this agreement will mostly fall away and there will be no arrangements to replicate.
Moreover, while we have the joint report and its principles, many of these points will require further information. It is difficult to know whether a defined solution for Northern Ireland would work elsewhere until the details are set out.
In an independence scenario with Scotland in the EU, it doesn’t just matter what rUK thinks about the border – the EU matters too. Here, the relative size of the non-EU/EFTA bordering country is significant. Northern Ireland is around 1.9 million people – rGB (England and Wales) 56 million people. From the EU’s perspective at least, that difference in economic and population size may require completely separate approaches.
How does this deal impact on the question of another independence referendum? The First Minister has previously indicated that the option of a second referendum should be revisited once the terms of a Brexit deal are clear.
This deal begins to sharpen the image of what Brexit will look like.
Theresa May has been consistent in her commitment that the UK will leave the single market and the customs union. Agreement on phase one of the talks brings that prospect of a hard Brexit closer for Scotland and the UK.
From the EU’s point of view, the main options for the UK are inside the single market or outside it. The former is like Norway, the latter Canada. There is very little scope for a ‘bespoke’ trade deal beyond those models.
The European Commission has to work with what David Davis tells it in the negotiating room. He has said that the UK will leave the single market and the customs union, so the EU is preparing accordingly.
Provided the UK government maintains its present course on Brexit (which it has done consistently up to now), the only option on offer will be a Canada-style free trade deal – with all the damage that would bring to Scotland and the UK.