March 29 marked exactly one year since British Prime Minister Theresa May invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, thus launching the formal two-year legal process by which the United Kingdom will withdraw from the European Union. In the first year, it is fair to say that the Brexit negotiations have had their ups and downs. But, on a positive note, substantial progress has been made in recent weeks.
For starters, a draft withdrawal treaty between the UK and the EU is now close to completion, though both sides have made clear that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Once finalized, this treaty will establish the rights and obligations of both parties on a range of issues, including the “Brexit bill” – that is, the UK’s outstanding liabilities from its time as a member of the bloc – as well as the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, and vice versa.
EU and UK negotiators have also agreed to a 21-month transition phase, from March 29, 2019, to December 31, 2020, during which time the UK will effectively remain an EU member state, albeit without representation in the European Parliament or any other EU decision-making bodies. The key outstanding issue that has yet to be resolved – and which will dominate discussions in the coming months – is the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU.
In order to avoid the establishment of a hard border – meaning a return to customs and police-inspection stations at all border crossings – the final Brexit treaty will have to include legal and political commitments from both sides. The European Commission’s insistence on a “backstop option” would already ensure that a “common regulatory area” is maintained even after the UK formally withdraws. But that is a last resort geared toward preserving the Irish peace process. It would be far more preferable to find a solution based on the future EU-UK trading relationship.
Since the UK’s general election last year, and following a series of political speeches by May, the EU has finally begun to understand what the current British government envisions for Brexit and the future EU-UK relationship. Specifically, May has confirmed that Britain will be leaving both the EU single market and the customs union.
From the EU’s perspective, this is deeply regrettable. As Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, regularly points out, this could be the first time in history that a trade negotiation results in additional barriers to commerce.
To be sure, it is the sovereign right of the British people and their government to leave the EU. But, as many are coming to realize, there is very little room to maneuver between the EU’s own core principles and values and the red lines that the UK has set for itself.
Throughout the Brexit process, the EU has criticized the UK for assuming that it could “have its cake and eat it.” Likewise, the UK has accused the EU of offering a bad deal: “the market access of Canada, with the obligations of Norway.” But if we are going to forge the close future relationship that both sides desire, we will have to move past such accusations.
The European Parliament, for its part, has adopted a more detailed conceptual framework for establishing the terms of the future EU-UK relationship, which would take the form of an association agreement. For some, that term might call to mind the recent EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. But an EU association agreement with the UK need not resemble its arrangement with Ukraine. In practice, an association agreement is merely a blank slate, upon which one can draw up terms of cooperation on trade, foreign policy, internal security, and other matters.
The inherent flexibility of EU association agreements should be familiar to Europeans and Britons alike. After all, the first-ever association agreement in 1954 was designed to foster cooperation between the European Coal and Steel Community and the United Kingdom, following the latter’s retreat from formal treaty negotiations.
History repeats itself, but never in the same way. Ultimately, it would be preferable to develop one overarching EU-UK governance framework to cover defense, economics, internal security, and other areas. The alternative would be the Switzerland model: a nightmarish thicket of agreements comprising more than 100 bilateral treaties.
I have no doubt that the upcoming phases of the Brexit negotiations will be complicated. But I am confident that reprising an association-agreement model that has proved successful in the past would allow the EU and the UK to enjoy a deep special partnership well into the future.