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Analysis

Vassalage is the right word for May’s Brexit

by Quentin Peel | 14.11.2018

In their hostility to Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the brothers Johnson agree on one thing: that far from “bringing back control” it leaves the UK as a “vassal state”, bound by rules set in Brussels over which the UK will have no influence. But is that a fair conclusion?

Ordinary mortals have yet to see the daunting detail of the agreement, some 500 pages of dense legal jargon. But from what has emerged so far from the “tunnel” in which the negotiators locked themselves for the past few weeks, “vassalage” is a fair description.

First, May insisted that only a UK-wide customs agreement with the EU could solve the problem of keeping the Irish border as open as it is now while avoiding a customs border in the Irish Sea. But by remaining in a customs union of any sort makes negotiating trade deals with non-EU countries such as the US, India, China and Australia, much more difficult.

And that is not all. Michel Barnier wasn’t happy to have a UK-wide customs arrangement inserted into the withdrawal treaty. It would prejudge the outcome of the long-term negotiations for a final trade agreement, and potentially undermine the integrity of the EU single market – a red line for the EU27. So the compromise is to insist the UK signs up to a raft of additional regulation in the backstop in order to ensure a “level playing field”.

That means obeying EU rules covering competition policy and state aids, environmental legislation (including sustainable energy targets), labour legislation and taxation. That already amounts to a very wide spectrum over which the UK will have no influence after Brexit.

The other acutely sensitive area for the UK – fisheries – has only been kept out of the deal by kicking the can down the road to the end of the transition period. In the meantime, the UK will have to accept that fishing quotas will be set in December 2019 for the whole of 2020 without any UK voice at the table. And after the transition period, it looks likely that tariff-free access for UK fish exports to the EU will only continue if the UK allows EU boats to carry on fishing in UK waters. A trade-off will be done.

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If the backstop includes a raft of EU legislation that must be obeyed as long as it lasts, will it ever come into effect? Agreement on a fully-fledged trade deal in 21 months seems well-nigh impossible, so either the transition period will have to be extended – a provision to do so by mutual consent is in the treaty – or the backstop will have to be used.

Can the UK end it unilaterally, to avoid remaining bound by EU rules in perpetuity? No way, said Barnier’s team. It must be by mutual agreement. So a joint committee will have to decide if the future trade deal is enough to keep the border invisible. The Brits may call it “arbitration”, but the reality is that a unilateral decision is a non-runner. Another forced concession.

So the end result is that the withdrawal treaty will leave the UK as a rule-taker until a long-term deal is done. That could easily take five years or more. A far better solution would be to hold a People’s Vote. The public can decide if they want the UK to be a rule-taker with Brexit, or a rule-maker as a full EU member.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

3 Responses to “Vassalage is the right word for May’s Brexit”

  • What I dont get is why hard Brexiteers seem incapable of thinking strategically. It will be their undoing. A deal is being announced for a transition period, not a permanent period. Reacting allergically to a couple of years of vassalage (which is effectively what we have had anyway since the referendum) is as daft as a general not strategically retreating on the battlefield out of principle because its “admitting defeat”. If they are serious and considered about what they want, they should go with the transition, rather than go head on for a no deal which most likely will increase the chances of a referendum and a complete U turn. Even Boris says we should have a transition period…so whats the big bloody deal ?

  • The only thing she has managed to do under this proposal is end free movement, and for that she has sacrificed sovereignty, representation and the economy, and the reputation of the country

    She really has taken the anti-immigration message to heart and it appears to be all that this awful Prime Minister holds dear. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool hater, it seems. Karma will prevail in the end.

  • I do not know why Bremainers do not support the May deal. It is the only thing worse than full EU membership. We cannot leave the customs union unilaterally. The longer it goes on the more certain public opinion is to demand readmission to the EU. And then we will be signed up to the Euro and everything else that Bremainers want.