EU summit on Brexit, but Theresa May’s Sisyphean task is not yet over

Brexit watchers Michaela Muscat and Jesmond Saliba say uncertainty is the name of the game for Prime Minister Theresa May

The going is still tricky for British prime minister Theresa May, who takes the deal to a House that remains divided on leaving the EU
The going is still tricky for British prime minister Theresa May, who takes the deal to a House that remains divided on leaving the EU

It is a historic day for the European Union and a woeful one for the United Kingdom, as the European Council meets Sunday for a summit that will likely approve the Brexit deal. 

European Council President Donald Tusk has recommended that the EU approve the deal after Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez received written assurances from the UK government over Gibraltar, and dropped his threat to boycott the summit. 

But the going is still tricky for British prime minister Theresa May, who takes the deal to a House that remains divided on leaving the EU, including her own vehement Tory Brexiteers: former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the UK would become a “satellite state” under the deal. 

The UK is scheduled to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 following a referendum in which 51.9% voted to leave the EU. But even if the EU approves the deal, it still has to be passed by the UK Parliament, with many MPs having stated their opposition. 

Jesmond Saliba, the publisher of Diplomatique.Expert, says that unless there will be extraordinary situations, where the EU member states ask any demands beyond the ones know so far, the deal between the UK and the EU will be sanctioned by the 27 member states. 

“For the intention of this comment, the assumption is that the deal at EU level will be reached. Despite the complexity, probably this is the easiest part for May. The real hard work will begin on her return. The deal will then have to be debated and voted on by British MPs in a ‘meaningful vote', a step wrung from the government last year during the passage of Brexit legislation.” 

The government is likely to announce the date of the vote on Monday, though it is expected to be in the first two weeks of December. 

“There are a number of scenarios which might happen,” Saliba says. “Whether it will pass or not is to be seen, however as things stand now, the prospects aren’t too high. The critics, including former Brexit Secretary Raab, are saying that this deal means that the UK is bound by the same rules without a control or voice over them.” 

Dr Michaela Muscat, a member of the Malta-UK Business Taskforce, says the aim of the EU-UK declaration is to underscore the principles of their future partnership. But it is not legally binding; only an affirmation of a political vision which signals a joint commitment to negotiate the future agreement in good faith. 

“It indicates that both the UK government and the EU view the withdrawal negotiations as sealed and are now looking to embark on the next stage, charting out a future relationship,” Muscat said. 

Her view however is that all Brexit outcomes are sub-optimal to EU membership, with the ‘no-deal’ outcome a definitive lose-lose scenario. But Muscat suggests a glass-half-full approach: the language of the two parties indicates a common approach. 

“Although the UK government intends to Brexit, there are shared interests that will require the closest possible collaboration. The sheer breadth of the declaration reminds us that it’s not just a trade deal which is at stake, keeping in mind that is was the main focus of the public debate. Negotiators will have to hammer out a future agreement which covers ‘law enforcement, criminal justice, foreign policy, security and defence’.  

“Crucially for May, the text includes a clear reference to the end of freedom of movement. It is widely understood that this is ultimately the bottom line for leave voters.” 

Muscat also says that the text is ambiguous enough to give future negotiators some elbow room, enough not to exclude other solutions for those MPs who remain unconvinced but are yet to be won over. “For instance, this includes the possibility to not automatically exclude ‘all available facilitative arrangements and technologies’ in relation to the Northern Ireland border. These are important soundbites intended to give her the necessary political capital to help her get her way in Westminster, which so far has seemed like a Sisyphean task,” Muscat says. 

All the above comes with a caveat, she adds. “This declaration is non-binding and what these principles will look like in practice remains to be seen over the next year or maybe two. And crucially, any deal which does not win over Westminster is useless. Whether this political declaration does the trick and the withdrawal agreement will be ratified, remains to be seen.” 

Saliba says only uncertainty remains the surest thing in the coming days. 

“Will there be a vote of no-confidence in May? It has been on the cards since the announcement of the deal. For some reason it didn’t materialise. Is it an issue of timing, a question of numbers? 

“Will there be a new election? Everything is possible, however in this scenario and the previous one, the only issue remains the timing, between today and 21 January, the day the UK – in the event that MPs refuse to approve the withdrawal agreement – will have to present its plans for next steps to Parliament. MPs will then be able to vote to endorse the statement.” 

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