British and EU negotiators agree on Brexit plan
LONDON — Britain’s painful path out of the European Union crossed a crucial threshold Thursday when negotiators from London and Brussels agreed on a text outlining future ties, a document replete with promises of ambition but ambiguous on crucial questions that have cleaved British politics.
The 26-page draft document is nonbinding and would supplement a legal withdrawal agreement that lists the “divorce” terms reached between Britain and the European Union, which it is scheduled to leave March 29.
Nevertheless, its conclusion opens the way for a summit meeting of EU leaders, who are expected to approve the overall plan for the withdrawal, known as Brexit, on Sunday in Brussels.
“The British people want this to be settled,” Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, said, outside her office on Downing Street. “They want a good deal that sets us on course for a brighter future.”
“That deal is within our grasp and I am determined to deliver it,” she added.
May still faces the daunting task of selling her Brexit plan to British lawmakers and hopes to accomplish that using the latest text, which promises many things to many people, as part of what it calls an “ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership.”
While pledging “deep and close” — but not frictionless — future trade ties, it hinted at leeway for Britain to choose a different economic path, reflecting the fundamental decision that British policy makers have so far dodged.
Despite some last-minute objections to the draft Brexit plan from Spain, over provisions concerning Gibraltar, analysts expect the deal to be signed off by EU leaders Sunday. Assuming it is, May then faces a huge challenge in the British Parliament, where many lawmakers have already expressed their opposition.
Many of them fret about the legally binding withdrawal agreement, laying out measures to prevent the need for checks on goods flowing across the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which will remain in the European Union.
Under these plans, the whole of the United Kingdom might remain in a European customs union temporarily, but critics fear that this could become a permanent arrangement, preventing the country from pursuing new trade deals around the world.
The document agreed on Thursday held out the prospect that technology could solve this thorny question — an apparent sop to the hard-line, pro-Brexit faction. It also referred to British plans for an independent trade policy and for “ending of free movement of people,” allowing the government in London to prevent people from EU nations from working in Britain.
And it suggested that the British might strike an “association agreement” with the bloc, a deal that is deeper and covers more areas than a free-trade agreement. Typically, that is the sort of relationship enjoyed by countries that want to join the European Union.
Yet the declaration is, in truth, a wish list for future negotiations — one that avoided the central question of whether Britain would stay deeply enmeshed in the bloc’s economic structures, and therefore accept its rules, or chart a different course.
Although the draft political declaration was intended to reassure some opponents, its critics immediately dismissed it. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labor Party, called it “half-baked,” a “vague menu of options” and “26 pages of waffle.” Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, wrote on Twitter that it was so vague that it “adds up to a blindfold Brexit.”
Mark Francois, a senior pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker, told the BBC that the document was best described as a “fig leaf” and “26 pages of political camouflage.”
“Everything the EU wanted from the negotiations has ended up in the withdrawal agreement — which is a legally enforceable international treaty,” said Priti Patel, another Brexit supporter and Conservative lawmaker. “Everything the UK wanted has been put in an unenforceable, meaningless declaration.”
Away from the political arena, Simon Fraser, a former top official at the British Foreign Office and a managing partner at Flint Global, a consultancy firm, said the document reflected “good work” by British officials and that it moved the debate on to a new stage.
But, he added, it “also confirms we would leave with many open questions and a long road ahead.”