British Prime Minister Theresa May said on November 14 that her Cabinet had agreed to a draft Brexit agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union (EU). Following a five-hour meeting with her Cabinet ministers in London, May said that the decision was “a decisive step which enables us to move on and finalize the deal in the days ahead.” The deal, which must next be approved by the British Parliament, faces significant opposition both from within May’s Conservative Party and from other parties.
“Theresa May has finally reached the first base camp on Britain’s way to exiting the EU,” said Fran Burwell, a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative.
The length of the November 14 meeting was seen as a signal of the serious concerns many on both sides of the Brexit debate have with the deal. One report suggested that as many as eleven of May’s twenty-nine Cabinet ministers opposed the deal. On November 15, Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, resigned from the cabinet along with three other government officials, over objections to May’s agreement.
What’s the deal?
Based on early reports on the details of the draft deal, the United Kingdom would remain in a customs union with the EU throughout a transition period and until there is an agreement on a permanent trade deal.
Additionally, there will be a “backstop” in place to ensure that Northern Ireland is able to retain “frictionless” trade with the Republic of Ireland in case the United Kingdom and EU cannot achieve a permanent free trade agreement. Politicians in Ireland and Northern Ireland worry that Brexit could reinstate border checks on the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border, potentially endangering the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to violence in Northern Ireland in 1998. The backstop will reportedly use a “swimming pool” model, with Northern Ireland following many EU regulations in order to preserve cross-border frictionless trade with the Republic of Ireland (the “deep end”) with the rest of the United Kingdom free to follow only a smaller set of competition standards (the “shallow end”).
This reported compromise has already been heavily criticized by pro-Brexit members of Parliament. They argue even the “shallow end” requirements to follow competition “level playing field” standards (like environmental standards and subsidies) handcuff future British policy making too much. Member of Parliament Peter Bone warned May during Prime Minister’s Questions on November 14 that with the reported deal “you are not delivering the Brexit people voted for and today you will use the support of many Conservative MPs and millions of voters across the country.”
Bart Oosterveld, director of the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program, also pointed out that the United Kingdom’s continued involvement in the EU customs union “severely limits the ability of the UK to conduct its own trade policy,” and “the longer this solution stays in place, the harder it will be to move away from it.”
Negotiating new trade agreements with countries such as the United States was a significant selling point for many pro-Brexit campaigners, but according to Oosterveld “the draft agreement severely diminishes the chances of a US-UK trade deal anytime soon.”
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) also remains skeptical of any provisions that would make Northern Ireland different from the rest of the United Kingdom, especially proposals that would require goods to be checked at an internal border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. May’s government is dependent on the DUP’s ten seats for its parliamentary majority. Before May’s Cabinet meeting, DUP leader Arlene Foster said that if May endorses a deal with special restrictions on Northern Ireland, “there will be consequences.” Foster explained, “we cannot, as Unionists, support a deal that broke up the United Kingdom.”
Where do the others stand?
Without the support of hardline pro-Brexit members of the Conservative Party—of which The Guardian estimates there are anywhere between forty and eighty who might vote against the deal—along with the ten DUP members, May will need to secure a significant number of opposition party members to pass the deal.
- Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the largest opposition Labour Party, said May’s deal “is a failure in its own terms.” While Conservative Party officials believe they can target dozens of Labour MPs from constituencies that voted to leave the EU to get them to support the deal, Labour officials still believe they can keep their party members in line and vote May’s deal down.
- Vince Cable, the leader of the smaller Liberal Democratic Party, said that “a deal of this kind is not going to get through” Parliament. He expects all of his members to vote no.
- Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, said that the deal so far appeared to be “the worst of all possible worlds for Scotland.”
Procedurally, the withdrawal deal must now be approved by the UK Parliament, but several more wrinkles will need to be smoothed over before that happens.
On the other side, EU leaders will likely take up the agreement for approval at a meeting of the European Council expected to take place on November 25. According to Oosterveld, “while there is intense internal debate in the UK regarding the agreement, EU leaders seem to present a united façade, and I expect them to approve the text without complications.” He added that “there is also likely to be a vague political declaration at that summit signaling the start of negotiations about future EU-UK trade relations.”
Burwell added that May getting EU leaders to approve the deal later in November “should be easy compared to her Cabinet colleagues.”
With Cabinet approval out of the way, May can now turn her attention to securing Parliament’s support for the deal. “As soon as tomorrow, [May] may face a rebellion by Conservative MPs and a vote of confidence,” Burwell explained. “But those MPs must face the fact that this deal is really the only option other than a disastrous “no deal.” Burwell argued that passing the deal in the Commons will be May’s “highest hurdle” with “Labour likely opposed, and the DUP and Brexiteer Tories in revolt.”
There are reports that several members of the Conservative Party may try to trigger a no-confidence vote in May’s leadership of the party, which could precipitate a leadership contest, a possibility that could increase if any more of May’s Cabinet ministers resign in protest against the deal. Conversely, the DUP could decide to withdraw its support for May’s government, throwing out the specter of a no-confidence vote for the whole government and the potential for a snap election.
Despite finally reaching an agreement with Brussels and gaining an endorsement from her government, Burwell said, May “still has a very long and difficult road ahead” to getting her Brexit deal across the finish line.
David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.