With the leak of a 26-page political declaration this morning – an enhanced version of last week’s briefer document – we now know the shape of the future EU-UK relationship which May and the EU negotiators want to achieve in the long run – if, and this could turn out to be a big if – the UK ever manages to escape from the purgatory of the backstop.
It is not a bad document in itself. Neither does it bear much of a resemblance to Chequers. The big difference is that it envisages a future trade deal which encompasses services as well as goods – Chequers envisaged Britain pretty well staying in the single market for goods while diverging on services. The political declaration states:
“The economic partnership should ensure no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors. The Parties should aim at substantial sectoral coverage, covering all modes of supply and providing for the absence of substantially all discrimination in the covered sectors, with exceptions and limitations as appropriate. The arrangements should therefore cover sectors including professional and business services, telecommunications services, courier and postal services, distribution services, environmental services, financial services, transport services and other services of mutual interest.”
That would appear to counter fears that the EU – steered on especially by France – would try to block UK access to the EU’s financial services sector. That would appear to be a big win for the City – though, of course, the devil is in the detail: we don’t know what “exceptions and limitations” would mean in practice.
As for the movement of goods across borders, the declaration doesn’t go as far as Chequers, promising only a customs relationship that is “as ambitious as possible”. That might be considered a loss for UK importers and exporters who will worry what it will mean in practice.
The declaration seems to confirms that the UK would be free to negotiate its own free trade deals:
“It must also ensure the sovereignty of the United Kingdom and the protection of its internal market, while respecting the result of the 2016 referendum including with regard to the development of its independent trade policy and the ending of free movement of people between the Union and the United Kingdom.”
It seems to recognise, too, the right of the UK to adopt its own regulatory approach – that we won’t simply hoover up EU regulations in order to gain seamless access to EU markets. This is another departure from Chequers. While preserving regulatory autonomy, the arrangements should include provisions to promote regulatory approaches that are transparent, efficient, compatible to the extent possible, and which promote avoidance of unnecessary regulatory requirements. The exception would appear to be with data protection laws. The document states:
“the Parties are committed to ensuring a high level of personal data protection to facilitate such flows between them.”
That sounds as if it pretty well means the UK will be expected to keep the General Data Protection Regulation – the EU’s over-the-top catch-all law which has had Church of England flower roster-arrangers quaking with fear that they will be prosecuted for keeping a list of email addresses – as well as causing some US media organisations to withdraw online access for Europeans.
The document commits the UK and EU to co-operation on the sort of stuff everyone would have expected, such as open skies, security etc. It also commits the UK and EU to reciprocal visa arrangements, and ones which respect visa-free travel for tourists and short business visits:
“the Parties aim to provide, through their domestic laws, for visa-free travel for short-term visits.”
But Scottish constituencies who voted Leave in order to prevent foreign vessels helping themselves to UK waters might turn out to be big losers. The document 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.”
In other words there is an ambition on the part of the EU to keep some degree of open access to the UK’s waters – something France, in particular, has been pushing for all week. That is not going to go down well in Michael Gove’s native Aberdeenshire.
Again, it needs to be emphasised, this is a document setting out principles for a future relationship to take effect if – and only if – Britain is allowed to escape from the backstop arrangements. It changes nothing in relation to Brexiteers' chief objection to the withdrawal agreement: that Britain will not be able to unilaterally withdraw from the backstop and so faces the possibility that a free trade deal may not be done for years, if ever.
It also poses the question: why on Earth could this future trade deal not have already been done, given we have had nearly 18 months to negotiate? Instead, months have been wasted while the EU demanded a leaving bill and then started pettifogging over the Irish border. It is a reminder that, above all, Britain faces a blind Brexit: we will be leaving without knowing for sure what our long-term relationship will be.