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Brexit: the latest state of the negotiations

The negotiations for the UK to leave the EU on March 29th 2019 are inevitably complex and made the more so by divisions within the major British parties and repeated threats of opposition to Theresa May’s negotiating strategy. This is an attempt to clarify the latest state of the negotiations and the obstacles to their fulfilment.

1. The Chequers Plan

After a Cabinet meeting at Chequers on July 6th, fifteen months after the Government triggered Article 50 to initiate the withdrawal negotiations, Theresa May announced agreement to the Chequers plan for Brexit. Within a few days a tranche of Ministers had resigned, including the Foreign Secretary and the Brexit Secretary, because they thought the plan would keep the UK too close to the EU and betray the will of the people expressed in the 2016 referendum.

It is true that the Chequers plan would keep the UK close to the EU for trade in goods but not services, including financial services. The intention was to establish frictionless trade with the EU with a common rule book for industrial goods and agricultural products. May’s opponents want a ‘clean break’ from the EU and a free trade agreement similar to the EU/Canada deal.

2. Northern Ireland

The problem with that are its implications for Northern Ireland. This is one of the major sticking points in the negotiations. The 310 mile border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, with its 195 crossing points, would be the sole land border between the UK and the EU and require Customs posts to record cross border trade for the collection of tariffs. Neither the UK nor the Irish Government wants that because of a fear of renewed conflict between republican activists and unionist, and the EU respects that.

The EU proposal was for the hard border to run down the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. That was totally unacceptable to the DUP, whose 10 MPs’ votes keep the Conservative Government in office. Theresa May rejected it on the grounds that it would break up the UK common market.

The Chequer’s Plan solution is for the UK to commit by treaty to continuing harmonisation with EU rules on goods so that checks on food and goods standards will not need to be checked at the border points. However, the Conservative Brexit rebels reject this, suggesting that it ties us to the EU indefinitely. Business interests take the opposite view and the CBI says it is what they have been suggesting all along.

Nevertheless, customs duties would still have to be levied and collected. The Chequers Plan proposal is for a Facilitated Customs Agreement whereby the UK will collect tariffs on behalf of the EU. Refunds would be paid to the EU if the UK’s tariffs are different from the EU’s.  The EU is uneasy about this but there have been hints that they might still consider it if it remains the only sticking point in the negotiations. Their concern is about the likelihood of smuggling across the border if there are not policed customs points.

3. Financial Services

Financial services, a major income-earner for the UK, are not covered by the Chequers Plan proposals so that there might be regulatory flexibility when it is our interests to have this. France takes a hard line on this because President Macron hopes Paris will replace London as the financial capital of Europe.

4. Immigration

Controlling immigration was one of the major reasons for leaving the EU. As Home Secretary May was committed to cutting immigration to less than 100,000 a year. Free movement is one of the non-negotiables of the EU for access to the single market. EU citizens already resident in the UK will have the right to stay but the Chequers Plan includes a ‘mobility framework’ so that UK and EU citizens can continue to travel to each other’s territories and apply for study and work. The need for skilled immigrant labour in the NHS, the construction industry, agriculture and academia remains a serious issue for the UK.

5. The European Court of Justice

The role of the European Court of Justice as the Supreme Court for the EU and terminating its jurisdiction over the UK was another major motive for Brexit. However, if the UK continues to harmonise with EU rules on goods, that will be difficult to achieve.  The Chequers Plan proposes a joint committee of judges to interpret and enforce agreements between the EU and the UK.

6. The Way Forward

This week (19-20 September) Theresa May has been meeting EU leaders in Salzburg. She has insisted to them that her Chequers Plan is the only way forward and if it is not accepted the UK will leave the EU without a deal. Their response is has been to urge her to hold a second referendum, believing that the British will change their decision of June 2016.

James Muscat, the Maltese Premier, spoke for his fellow leaders when he said, “There is unanimous, or almost unanimous I would say right now, point of view around the table that we would like the almost impossible to happen, that the UK has another referendum.”

Donald Tusk, the president of the EU Council of Ministers, has called for the Chequers Plan to be “reworked and further negotiated” to find common ground on the Irish border issue.

So, despite rumours of progress in the talks, there is still no sign of a green light in the negotiations. Theresa May is playing hardball with her fellow leaders, indicating that unless they make some concessions we will leave the EU without a deal. The Northern Ireland border is the crucial sticking point and the two sides have only until mid-November to find a mutually acceptable solution.

7. Prayer for that solution

Rather than aimlessly waiting for ‘something to come up’, it is every believer’s duty to pray for God’s will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven. Will you join me in doing that? 

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