All the big sticking points that could still scupper May's Brexit divorce deal

Matt Cardy / StringerTheresa May set to meet with Tusk and Juncker
  • Theresa May set to meet with Jean Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk to settle Britain’s Brexit divorce deal.
  • The two sides remain at odds over several major issues.
  • However, the UK government is hopeful a deal can be done on EU citizens rights, Northern Ireland and the divorce bill.
  • The Northern Ireland border has emerged as the main sticking point in divorce negotiations.

LONDON – Theresa May will meet with EU Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker at lunchtime today in an attempt to nail down the Brexit divorce deal. So what is May hoping to achieve, what are the remaining sticking points and will she get what she is after?

Here’s everything you need to know about May’s big day in Brussels.

What is the Brexit divorce deal?

Theresa May has three central aims in the Brexit negotiations. The first is to agree the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU, the second is to agree Britain’s future relationship with the EU and the third is to agree Britain’s transition to that future relationship. The EU has insisted that Britain makes what they call “sufficient progress” on the first of these aims before they will even talk about the other two

What does ‘sufficient progress’ mean?

Nobody really knows. EU negotiators have not publicly set out exactly what terms Britain will have to meet before the next stage of talks can begin and the British government have also insisted that only the EU can decide what significant progress means. However, while the precise definition of the term is debatable, we do know that there are three central issues that Britain needs to move on in order to progress talks.

What are the sticking points in Brexit divorce talks?

  1. Rights of EU citizens:There are around 3 million (non-British) EU citizens currently living in the UK. The vast majority of these moved to Britain before the Brexit vote and did so under the understanding that they could continue to live and work here under the terms of EU freedom of movement rules. The decision to leave the EU has, therefore, put their position in doubt. Theresa May has said that she wants EU citizens to be able to stay after Brexit but has refused to unilaterally guarantee their rights whilst negotiations continue. The EU and UK also disagree over the extent that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will be able to offer EU citizens in the UK protection after Brexit. May has insisted that Britain will leave the ECJ’s jurisdiction but has offered a compromise by which British courts could opt to refer cases to the ECJ. Disagreement also remains on the status of the family members of EU citizens after Brexit. However, the UK government is hopeful that agreement on this issue with the EU is mostly there. Read our big feature on the fate of EU citizens in the UK.
  2. The divorce bill: The EU insists that Britain must pay for all financial commitments made while it was a member. Despite early protestations by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson that the EU can “go whistle” for the money, the UK government has now largely accepted this. While a final number on the divorce bill will probably not be made public until the very end of negotiations, it is understood that Britain has agreed to pay around £50 billion over the coming decade. On this issue, like on EU citizens, the UK government is hopeful that agreement is largely there. However, this will only cover previous commitments by the UK. It is still likely that Britain will be forced to pay for continued membership of certain EU-related organisations as well as potentially retaining widespread access to the single market. The UK government has also insisted that any divorce payments must be tied to Britain’s future relationship, while insisting that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” This remains at odds with the EU.
  3. Northern Ireland: Of the three central issues in the Brexit divorce talks, the question of Northern Ireland has emerged as the most fraught. Britain’s decision to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market has caused huge problems over what will happen to the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. All sides are opposed to the return of a hard border. However, once Britain leaves the EU, it will inevitably start a process of regulatory divergence from it. Every time that Britain changes its laws on customs, trade, or immigration, it will move one step away from the EU and one step towards a situation where a hard border between the Northern Ireland and Ireland would become inevitable. Installing a border would threaten the peace process and be highly economically damaging to Northern Ireland. All sides have therefore been keen to solve this problem, with little success. One possible solution, of devolving customs and immigration to Northern Ireland, has already been dismissed by the Conservative government’s coalition partners the DUP, who have threatened to bring down the government over the issue. May’s attempts to seal a deal with the Irish government have also so far come to nothing. Agreement on this issue, therefore, seems a long way away and is now the main sticking point in divorce negotiations. However, it is possible that the EU will decide this week that while not solved, sufficient progress has been made on the issue to allow talks to progress.Read more about why the Northern Ireland border issue is so difficult to solve.

Will May strike a deal?

UK government and EU sources have told the Times that the divorce deal is 90% there. While that may sound positive, it is still possible that talks may collapse over the remaining 10%, with Northern Ireland being the most likely culprit for scuppering talks. Either way, we should have a pretty good idea of which way we are heading following May’s lunch with Juncker and Tusk this afternoon. We can expect an announcement from the UK soon afterwards, with the full contents of their discussions likely to be briefed in full to the European press over the coming days.

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