‘Sufficient progress’. Those words that Number 10 has been desperate to hear for months have now passed Jean-Claude Juncker’s lips.
After Monday’s epic false start, the government will just be relieved to have got there. If they had failed to secure ‘sufficient progress’ by Christmas it would have been hugely destabilising, both economically and politically. But looking at the text, it appears that agreement has been reached on the Irish border by a combination of fudge and kicking the can down the road. In the next phase, they are going to have to define what alignment really means: and that is bound to be controversial.
But this morning, Downing Street will be happy. The fact Michael Gove was out selling the deal on the Today Programme was a sign that the Cabinet’s Brexiteers can accept this deal for now; whether they can once all the terms are defined is another question. Indeed, Gove seemed to be suggesting that alignment was really equivalence which is not the meaning of the term that has been used in previous EU trade treaties.
Looking at the three areas of phase one, the UK has ended up in a fairly reasonable place. The so-called divorce bill will be substantial but not as large as some Brussels sources had suggested. On citizens’ rights, the European Court of Justice will have a limited role. But there’ll be a sunset clause on its involvement. The crucial point about this is that it makes it harder to use this arrangement as a beachhead for ECJ jurisdiction on a whole host of other issues. On the Irish border, the UK has largely succeeded in pushing the issue into the next phase which is what it wanted.
However, perhaps the most significant development of the last few days is that it is now clear the EU really does want a deal. The ways in which the Commission worked to keep the talks going after Monday, doing what they could to minimise the embarrassment to May, suggests that they don’t want the talks to collapse either.
The next phase of the talks will be more difficult, both with the EU and within government. Before Christmas, May will now have to sit down with her Brexit inner Cabinet and thrash out what kind of trading relationship with the EU, the UK wants. This will force her to decide between the two factions in her Brexit Cabinet. But this morning, Downing Street will just be relieved that it has got through the Budget and phase one of the Brexit talks without any disasters. May has made it to Christmas.