5 things you need to know about the UK-EU Political Declaration on Brexit

Ben Wray

The Political Declaration has been described as “25 pages of waffle” and “an agreement to have an agreement” by opposition party leaders

THE UK and EU have agreed a Political Declaration on the future relationship between the two countries. EU member states will meet on Sunday [25 November] to decide whether they will accept the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration, and if they agree it will then go the House of Commons in coming weeks. 

What’s in the Political Declaration and will it change any of the politics around Brexit? CommonSpace breaks down the five things you need to know.

Blindfold Brexit

The Political Declaration is the epitome of a blindfold Brexit. It sets out a number of intentions, or parameters, for sorting out a final deal in the two year transition process (which could be extended on and on), but there is very little by way of concrete detail. It’s difficult to disagree with Lib Dem leader Vince Cable’s comment that it was “an agreement to have an agreement”, highlighting a phrase in the Declaration which said “we will explore the possibility of cooperation”, or Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s conclusion that it was: “26 pages of waffle…it’s peppered with phrases such as ‘the parties will look at´, ‘the parties will explore’.”

It’s the Withdrawal Agreement, stupid

Nothing in the Political Declaration binds the EU or the UK to anything – it’s not legally binding. It is the withdrawal agreement which is legally binding, and it’s this that ties the UK into a Northern Irish backstop which will leave the UK in effect part of the Customs Union with no means of getting out of it without the mutual agreement of the EU. This is the critical issue, and nothing in the Political Declaration changes this. It may very well be the case that the UK and EU agree a new arrangement which supercedes the backstop, but the backstop is essentially EU controlled, and therefore it acts as a major negotiating tool on Brussels’ side in the future negotiations. If the Political Declaration wins over Tory Brexiteers, they are either not very intelligent Tory Brexiteers or not very committed ones.

Fisheries sell out?

A big issue coming out of the Political Declaration is whether it breaks the Tories promise to make Britain an independent coastal state and gets rid of the Common Fisheries Policy. The Scottish Tories signed a letter to the Prime Minister just two weeks ago stating that “access and quota shares cannot be included in the Future Economic Partnership”. Scottish Secretary David Mundell said he would resign from the Cabinet if May did not deliver this, but the political declaration states: “Within the context of the overall economic partnership the Parties should establish a new fisheries agreement on, inter alia, access to waters and quota shares.”

So it appears pretty cut and dry. SNP Westminster leader Iain Blackford accused May of “trading away Scotland’s interests” and a “sell out” of Scottish fisheries, and Corbyn said the “Common Fisheries Policy will be replaced with…the Common Fisheries Policy”.

But May hit back, arguing that the terms of a new fisheries agreement would have to be agreed, but that it would be agreed by the UK as an independent coastal state, and would therefore be able to set restrictions on access to waters and quota shares as quickly as it could allow EU fishermen into UK waters.

This is unlikely to appease those, especially in Scotland, who thought the boon of Brexit was the end of the CFP, but it may muddy the waters enough to allow most of the 15 Scottish Tory MPs to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement. Mundell has indicated he won’t be resigning, but perhaps even more important to the Prime Minister is securing those 15 votes.

Still tied into state aid and procurement rules

For those, like the Labour leadership, who are looking towards the potential opportunities on the left in a post-Brexit UK, this Political Declaration appears to tie the UK in to many of the aspects of the EU which the left has consistently criticised, including state aid and competition rules which restrict nationalisation and public procurement policy which allows corporations to dominate procurement.

The Declaration argues for a “level playing field for open and fair competition” which includes “state aid” and “competition”. There is also a section on public procurement, indicating that the UK and EU would seeks to provide for “mutual opportunities in the Parties’ respective public procurement markets”.

It is difficult ascertain how independent the UK will be from the so called EU four freedoms, which includes allowing for the frictionless movement of capital across borders, but it’s unlikely that an approach to the economy based on planning for social and ecological need will be possible within the trade deal which is eventually agreed between the UK and the EU.

May appealling to Labour backbenchers

May tried to tick off the six Labour tests for Brexit one by one. This is the first time she has ever engaged with them. She also made reference to “all MPs working in the national interest”. There is a clear attempt here to make an appeal to Labour backbenchers, who it increasingly looks like the Prime Minister needs to have any hope of getting the Withdrawal Bill through the House of Commons. Some Labour backbench MPs who are by no means loyal to Corbyn have spoken about their concern of a No Deal Brexit and have not ruled out backing May’s deal. To do so would split Labour even more than it already is, and would leave the party in danger of having its fingerprints on May’s Brexit, which could have big electoral consequences down the road. The stakes for Labour are very high.

Picture courtesy of Number 10

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