Brexit secretary David Davis (left) and Michel Barnier (right), the EU’s chief negotiator, have agreed to deliver a year from now nothing more than a ‘Heads of Agreement’ © Bloomberg
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So far, so predictable. A collision between one country and the 27 other EU member states was bound to favour the latter. A collision between reality and the utopian fantasies of the Brexiters was bound to favour the former. And a collision between the grubby embrace of the Democratic Unionist party by the Conservatives and the demands of the Irish government was bound to occur sooner or later.
And so the UK — once famed for wily statecraft — has blundered into a volley of self-inflicted Brexit concessions and is reduced to begging Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, for permission to proceed.
The humiliating capitulation of the arch Brexiters is striking too. Where once the EU was told to “go whistle” by Boris Johnson in response to its financial demands, now tens of billions of pounds have been made available.
But there is a method to their humiliation. The Brexiters are displaying all the iron discipline of a sect that believes it is tantalisingly close to reaching the goal its members have always dreamt of. They have worked out that the only thing that matters is to drag the country across the legal finishing line of March 29 2019. Beyond that point, they have correctly realised, there is no turning back from Brexit. They no longer care if they are exposed as fibbers and fantasists — or risk reigniting tensions across the Irish border — the holy grail of a Britain outside the EU is now within touching distance.
But to reach their promised land — assuming the DUP veto is lifted this week — they must pull off one final sleight of hand, which may be their undoing. It is the agreed intention of both Brexit secretary David Davis and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to deliver to the UK parliament and the union’s 27 other governments, a year from now, nothing more than a “Heads of Agreement” governing the future relations between the UK and the EU. The details of that future relationship will be withheld, left to further negotiations. And the Brexiters will actively conspire to keep MPs in the dark.
From the EU’s point of view, such an approach is fully in line with Article 50 itself, which only covers the terms of a divorce between a departing member state and the EU, while referring vaguely to “the framework for its [future] relationship with the union”. A close observer of the Brexit talks in Brussels recently told me that once the “money question” had been resolved, it would be relatively straightforward to negotiate the rest. I was initially nonplussed, but if the real hurdle for the talks in the coming months is little more than a “framework” it will indeed be fairly straightforward as all the difficult decisions will be deferred until after the UK has legally left the EU.
That, of course, is exactly why the Brexiters in Westminster will be happy, on this occasion, to go along with Brussels: they have calculated that an outline deal, bereft of the invidious content that a proper agreement would include, is the ideal document to put to parliament. MPs will find it far harder to challenge a deal that is rich in rhetoric but sparse in substance.
Officials on both sides are already working on drafts of a skeleton agreement with headings covering foreign and defence policy; antiterrorism and crime fighting; EU programmes such as Erasmus and Horizon; and a free-trade agreement based on the relationship between the EU and Canada.
But this is not what the British people were promised. Theresa May and her ministers have repeatedly said that parliament will be able to vote on both the terms of our departure and the terms of our future interaction with the EU. Mr Davis was crystal clear: “We are aiming for the conclusion of negotiations on all fronts . . . by the end of March 2019.” And Liam Fox, UK international trade secretary, declared that the trade agreement “should be one of the easiest in human history”.
It would be the greatest betrayal yet of parliament if MPs were fobbed off instead with the outline of an agreement shorn of all real detail. How are our MPs supposed to sign off our departure from the EU without knowing what comes next? It would be like packing a removal van without knowing where you’re moving to.
And it would leave businesses in a hopeless bind. Any free trade agreement between the UK and the EU is going to fall so far short of the seamless trade we enjoy now within the single market, it will involve the reintroduction of a plethora of new administrative and regulatory barriers.
Without knowing exactly where the protectionist axe will fall will make it virtually impossible for businesses to plan for the future.
There are only two possible responses to this predicament: either MPs instruct the government to ask for an extension of the period of time under Article 50 during which negotiations can continue; or they should reject the flimsy framework agreement put before them and demand that the government thinks again. In the meantime, Mrs May should act wisely for Britain — not out of desperation as a hostage to the DUP.
The writer is a former UK deputy prime minister