The Brexit transition draft agreement is in – and it’s not all smooth sailing for the UK government. In a press conference, Brexit negotiators Michel Barnier and David Davis heralded the proposed terms for the implementation period as a ‘decisive step’ towards achieving an orderly Brexit. However, it’s clear that the government will have to rein in some disorderly MPs before it’s signed off by the EU27 on Friday.
As proposed, the transition period will end New Year’s Eve 2020, three months earlier than expected. In terms of the pros for the UK side, the government will be able to negotiate and sign trade deals during the transition period and there is no longer a ‘punishment clause’. The clear cons, however, relate to fisheries and Northern Ireland. Although Theresa May had promised to fight proposals for a ‘backstop’ keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union should no alternative to the Irish border be found, it appears she has agreed to something similar. While the exact language is not yet known – and is expected to be a slightly watered down version – the Prime Minister has in theory agreed to keep the UK in regulatory alignment with the EU should no other solution be found. Although this is only a last resort, Brexiteers worry that it takes the ‘walk away’ option away and means Brussels have less incentive to play ball. However, the fact that the DUP – not a group known to mince their words – do not appear to have seen red here suggests they have had assurances as to its meaning.
The issue that will cause the government the most grief in immediate terms relates to the commons fisheries policy. The fishing quotas will stay in the control of the EU and the UK will only get to ‘consult’ in this period. This has gone down like a lead balloon among Scottish Conservatives and some Brexiteers. Ruth Davidson has issued a statement voicing her disappointment and several Conservative MPs have already gone public with their dismay – threatening rebellion.
The problem for May is that the promise to take control of UK seas was a potent one in the EU referendum. It’s this pledge that is credited for turning several Scottish seats blue in the snap election. I understand that Scottish Conservatives have previously pressed on May the importance of sticking to this pledge. While she has promised colleagues that she ‘won’t do a Heath’ (referring to Ted Heath’s role in signing the UK up to the policy in the first place), there are concerns that Philip Hammond and the Treasury take a different view and see fisheries as a bargaining chip. Today’s backlash over the transition ought to serve as a reminder to the government that there will be severe political ramifications for the Conservatives if they are seen to backslide on this issue in the long term.