With the June Council fast approaching, many in Brussels feel that crunch time is nigh for the UK and Theresa May’s government.
Since the European Commission published the draft Withdrawal Agreement (the draft text of the EU-UK agreement that sets out the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU), players within the EU institutions and the EU27 member states have been closely monitoring developments in the negotiations between DExEU and the Commission’s Taskforce 50.
As the Commission’s lead Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier has repeatedly noted in recent months, the draft text is 75% agreed, with the remaining 25% mainly consisting of issues relating to governance of the agreement and Northern Ireland.
While talk of customs partnerships and arrangements have dominated the domestic political agenda in the UK (where the debate has raged as to how best to shape the UK’s approach to the future EU-UK relationship), little progress has been made on either outstanding issue. The EU mantra that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” has been repeated by MEPs, Commissioners and heads of state, with European Council President Donald Tusk reminding the UK in April that the agreement reached on transition cannot be implemented without agreement on the Northern Irish ‘backstop’ provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Negotiations on the Northern Irish ‘backstop’ have all but stalled, with some in the EU suggesting that no progress has been made on the issue since the Commission published its proposal in February. The expectation at that time was that the UK would immediately counter that proposal, with both sides aiming to come to a satisfactory agreement ahead of June’s European Council meeting, the last such meeting in advance of the crucial October summit where the Withdrawal Agreement is to be formally adopted.
Given the lack of progress to date on these issues (the UK is yet to publish proposals on how it sees the ‘backstop’ or the governance of the Withdrawal Agreement functioning), there is now a fear that the June deadline for agreement may pass, leaving the UK with little time to conclude the Withdrawal Agreement and guarantee a transition period. It is imperative that this is done if the UK is to avoid crashing out of the EU in March 2019 when the Article 50 process comes to an end. In order to avoid a cliff-edge Brexit, agreement must quickly be reached by both sides on the outstanding withdrawal issues. Only then can efforts fully shift to the crafting of the new EU-UK relationship.