Brexit weekly briefing: transition is a done deal as Britain backs down

Jon Henley
Michel Barnier gestures his approval of the transition deal agreed with David Davis. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP

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Britain and the EU agreed the terms of a standstill transition period beginning when the UK exits the bloc in March next year and ending in December 2020, giving some reassurance to businesses worried by an imminent regulatory cliff edge.

But Britain had to make major concessions to strike a deal – and because “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” the transition period will only happen if the two sides reach a legal article 50 withdrawal agreement, which is far from certain.

On the biggest obstacle to an article 50 accord, the UK was forced to accept that Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic would stay in regulatory alignment unless a hard border can be avoided either by a future trade deal or new technology.

Among other UK climbdowns: the transition period cannot be extended; the future relationship cannot be negotiated until the transition is over; and Britain must abide by European court of justice rulings during the transition and continue paying into the EU budget until 2064.

Despite earlier pledges, Britain has also had to allow EU vessels continued access to its fisheries and permit free movement (with the same rights) throughout the transition period. Nor can it implement any trade deals negotiated with third countries until after 2020.

In short: although the CBI welcomed a status quo transition as “a victory for common sense” that “lifts a cloud of uncertainty”, it came at heavy cost – and provides little or no certainty about the future relationship.

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The New Statesman’s political editor, George Eaton, writes that the transition agreement shows “the EU, not the UK, has taken back control” – leave politicians have been forced to back down on every front:

In the distant era of 2016, Brexiteers insisted no transition at all would be needed. Britain, leave politicians promised, would simultaneously negotiate its divorce from the EU and a new trade deal. After last year predicting a summer-long row, David Davis capitulated on the first day of the EU talks. Since then, the government has accepted a £35-39bn divorce bill (a figure for which Boris Johnson said the EU could ‘go whistle’), which will not be paid off until 2064. It has agreed to grant EU citizens full rights during the transition period (with European court of justice oversight until 2027). It has accepted a ‘backstop’ plan of keeping Northern Ireland under EU law to avoid a hard border with the republic. More than four years on from the referendum, in the summer of 2020, the UK will have no new trade deals in place. The risk is now not that the agreed transition is too long but that it is too short. But the Tories are determined to break free well before the next election (2022) and the EU has no desire to allow the UK to linger in a Brexit antechamber. Once Britain formally exits the EU, however, its weak negotiating position will become weaker still. The point at which the economic self-harm of Brexit finally becomes clear has been deferred – but it has not been averted.

The actor Patrick Stewart, writing in the Guardian, says war shaped his childhoodand Brexit shouldn’t be allowed to risk the peace – UK citizens should be allowed another say:

When the UK and Ireland were brought in as members I felt, for the first time in my life, that the brutality of the wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 could never happen again, and at last collaborative, collective cooperation would assure benefits for everyone. Perhaps I had too utopian a vision of what a new Europe might be like. Nevertheless, the term ‘European’ had come to mean something different. The first time I was back on the continent after the 2016 referendum I felt distinctly uncomfortable, bordering on ashamed, that my country was now seeking to unravel all that had been achieved. Especially given that the Brexit campaigners deceived the British people with their false and deliberately misleading slogans and speeches. Doctors, nurses and staff are quitting, many of them to return to the countries they left. We have told them, in effect: ‘We don’t want you. Go home.’ A recent report from the LSE found that in the most pessimistic scenario the cost of Brexit could be as high as £6,400 for each household. So I want to urge that we think again, now that we are learning the real cost of Brexit.

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Will Straw, who ran the Britain Stronger In Europe referendum campaign, on the transition deal: