The Brexit agreement is largely a pragmatic document which tries to steady the ship, rather than a major breakthrough in any direction. Fisheries, for example, are not resolved – they’re simply put into abeyance before the next round. The whole document looks like a draft, with loads of white space around sections – when a Labour spokesman talked yesterday about it being 600 pages and ‘tightly spaced’, it was clear he’d not even looked at it, because he couldn’t have said that if he had.
Some elements in it are disappointing, but to my mind the sections which most prompt concern almost certainly reflect the negotiating position of the British Government. I’d point in particular to
- Article 15(1), which gives people a right of residence only after they’ve been in athe host country for five years. That is an abdication of responsibility both by the EU (which guaranteed movement as a fundamental right) and the UK (which made the same guarantee to its own citizens).
- Article 92(5) and Protocol IV.7, which bind the UK not to offer state aid to business; and
- Protocols V.17 and 18, which void elements of contracts which have non-commercial justification, a principle used to negate local minimum wages and agreements with labour unions.
It’s also important to note what’s not there: protection for the rights of citizens who might reasonably expect to live and work abroad but have the misfortune to be domiciled in their home country at the moment, cross-border families in the same situations, or derogations from EU law relating to internal management of the British economy.
These are not, I know, the issues that most excite our politicians. I’m sure someone will notice that the protocol with Northern Ireland stresses the importance of access to the UK for goods from the province (pp 304 and 313), but not vice-versa. It’s possible that the whole agreement will founder on that.
The agreement could have been better. It would have been better if the government had thought through its position at the start; if it had consulted with interest groups, rather than keeping negotiations secret; and if it had used EU law to hold the EU to its treaty obligations. It probably would not, however, look a lot different from the document we have now. Ultimately I expect Parliament to fold, but even if we were to go through another election, any commitment to implement the referendum decision as it stands will end up looking something like this.