LONDON – The United Kingdom and European Union announced on Monday they have reached a draft agreement on the terms of a transition deal which will take effect once Britain departs in March 2019.
Speaking in Brussels shortly after midday, Brexit Secretary David Davis said negotiations had taken “another significant step” after the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, praised the efforts of both negotiating teams.
However, beyond the congratulatory words, both Davis and Banier revealed a number of key details about what the transition period – or “implementation period” as it’s also known – will look like.
Here are the five biggest takeaways from the Brexit transition agreement:
The Irish border issue still isn’t resolved
The biggest news from today’s agreement is the UK’s climbdown on the Irish border issue, which threatened to derail negotiations.
The UK has finally committed to a “backstop solution” which would essentially keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs zone and single market after Brexit in order to avoid a hard border with the Irish Republic.
The backstop option – known in Brussels as “Option C” – will only take effect if the UK cannot find another way of avoiding a hard border.
Prime Minister Theresa May initially said that no prime minister could agree to the deal, because it would likely see new border checks emerge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The UK’s initial resistance to legally committing to Option C caused alarm in Ireland, as officials warned the emergence of a hard border could inflame sectarian tensions and unsettle the Irish peace process.
It is now up to the UK side to find a workable alternative – and it has lots of work to do.
“A decisive step remains a step – we are not at the end of the road. a lot of work needs to be done,” Barnier said.
For now, the can has been kicked a little further down the road.
British fishermen are going to be very angry
The draft agreement today showed that the UK has agreed it will remain signed up to the EU’s much-maligned Common Fisheries Policy during the 20-month transition phase.
The issue of fishing rights is rapidly becoming one of the most bitterly disputed aspects of Brexit negotiations, and today’s news has already been met with fury by the fishing industry.
A large majority of fishermen voted for Brexit because they want the UK to take back control of fisheries policy, setting its own quotas and restricting the number of European fishing boats in British waters.
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation said in a statement: “This falls far short of an acceptable deal. We will leave the EU and leave the CFP, but hand back sovereignty over our seas a few seconds later. Our fishing communities’ fortunes will still be subject to the whim and largesse of the EU for another 2 years.”
On Sunday night, John Lamont, MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, said that he would reject any final Brexit deal – which needs to be passed in the Westminster parliament – if it did not hand the UK full control of setting quotas and determining which vessels are allowed in British waters.
A senior figure in a pro-Brexit fishing group told BI: “Total f***ing sell out. Should leave David Davis in Brussels where he belongs.”
Britain can sign new trade deals (but not implement them)
In what will be received as a victory for Brexiteers – particularly Trade Secretary Liam Fox – Britain will be able to negotiate and sign new free trade deals during the 20-month transition period.
However, Fox and co will have to wait until the end of transition before any new deals signed can come into effect, as the draft Withdrawal Agreement prohibits any new deals from coming into play during the transition period.
Asked why he was so relaxed about letting the UK pursue an independent trade policy during transition, Barnier said: “They are leaving 750 international agreements. 750!
“The UK has work to do to reestablish relations with all those partners.”
Fox has previously pledged to sign 40 free trade deals within seconds of leaving the EU.
EU citizens finally have some certainty
EU citizens who arrive during the transition period will have the same rights as those present before Brexit. That’s because the UK has agreed to all the provisions included in the draft Withdrawal Agreement.
Barnier confirmed that EU citizens arriving during the transition phase will continue to enjoy “the same rights and guarantees” as EU citizens currently residing in the country.
That represents another significant climbdown for the prime minister, who previously said citizens arriving after Brexit should be treated differently.
“For those who come after March 2019, that will be different because they will be coming to a UK that they know will be outside the EU,” May said in February. “This is a matter for negotiation.”
However, the UK side realised that it must be willing to compromise on citizens rights in order to move talks forward.
A no-deal Brexit is less likely
Whatever the terms of the deal, an agreement on a transition phase makes the prospect of a dreaded no-deal Brexit less likely.
The government is now set for a period in which it can negotiate free-trade deals, try to negotiate tariff-free access to the EU’s single market, and smooth out the remaining negotiation issues, including the tricky Irish border question.
The negotiation has largely been a case of the UK conceding to EU demands – but it will be welcome news for British business.
“Agreeing transition is a critical milestone that will provide many hundreds of businesses with the confidence to put their contingency planning on hold and keep investing in the UK,” Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director-General, said.
The joint press conference held between Barnier and Davis also carried a constructive tone, which sits in contrast to both sides’ at times hostile and frustrated comments towards each other.
Barnier was at pains to “applaud the whole of the UK negotiating team for their commitment and competence,” while Davis called the agreement “another significant step.”