A government minister has just appeared at the despatch box to discuss the state of the EU negotiations. Unfortunately for Theresa May, it wasn’t the victorious address No 10 had in mind when they earmarked time in the Chamber for today. Instead, David Davis was summoned to Parliament to answer an urgent question from Labour’s Keir Starmer on the state of the EU negotiations ahead of this month’s EU council meeting.
After May’s efforts to agree ‘sufficient progress’ in Brussels yesterday were torpedoed by concerns from the DUP over concessions on the Irish border, the shadow Brexit secretary accused the government of giving new meaning to the phrase ‘coalition of chaos’. He said that the government yesterday expected a deal – and had briefed out to that effect – but it had embarrassingly ended with a 49-second press conference. Starmer said it was time for May to have a reality check – urging her to rethink her government’s Brexit strategy and her opposition to remaining in the customs union.
A seemingly relaxed – if croaky – Davis insisted all parties are confident of getting a deal by the end of the week. He would not give too many details given that the negotiations are ongoing and the government is in the middle of a round. He did, however, reiterate that the government wants to protect the Good Friday agreement while also protecting the integrity of the UK. How exactly they plan to do this rests on the terms for trade or more specifically regulatory alignment and what it means. The term was used in the draft text yesterday – instead of an earlier use of ‘no regulatory divergence’ – and led to the DUP getting spooked that they would be treated differently than the rest of the UK. The big concern is that Northern Ireland could have to comply to EU regulations that the rest of the UK would not – meaning a potential border in the Irish sea.
This afternoon, Davis gave the clearest suggestion yet that when the government talks about ‘regulatory alignment’ in relation to the Good Friday agreement, they mean for it to be UK-wide. Antoinette Sandbach, the Tory backbencher, asked Davis whether they could have regulatory alignment for the whole of the UK. Davis replied that this was the intention. He added that alignment is not the same as harmonisation. This is aimed at calming Brexiteer worries they will have to remain in some form of Customs Union.
How successful this solution is depends on what the different parties – and politicians – interpret regulatory alignment to mean. The UK government see it as freer than having no regulatory divergence – but the Irish government claims they are the same. On Coffee House, I’ve argued it’s a bit like the difference between a couple who are seeing each other and a couple that is dating: small but significant. The former British ambassador to the US Sir Christopher Meyer says it’s a distinction that can be summed up as ‘the difference between singing in unison and singing in harmony’.
What’s clear from this session – where Remain campaigners called for the UK to remain in the Customs Union and Brexiteers pointed to ‘no deal’ – is that unless the government can sell this difference as a significant one, trouble lies ahead regardless of whether they get sufficient progress or not.