Wednesday 19 September 2018

Nine questions you may have about the Brexit situation right now

Stock photo: PA Wire/PA Images
Stock photo: PA Wire/PA Images

Shona Murray

Where are we with Brexit - and what is the latest? Here are nine questions you may have about the progress of talks right now.

When is the next deadline for Irish-related Brexit issues?

Mid-June.

How so?

The EU, led by chief negotiator Michel Barnier, is in a parallel negotiating track with the UK. The first track is the completion of the Withdrawal Agreement, which has to be completed by October.

But the Irish strand of the Withdrawal Agreement has to be significantly developed by June, as per demands by Dublin and Brussels. Please explain. The Withdrawal Agreement is the legal treaty which guides British withdrawal from the EU, laying out under what terms and conditions it leaves.

You may remember before Christmas the tough talks over the ‘divorce issues’ – well they are contained in the Withdrawal Agreement. Britain has been a member of the EU club for 45 years, and it must honour its outstanding commitments to the programmes it has signed up to, including the EU budget.

The Withdrawal Agreement deals with this, as well as the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit.

Also within the Withdrawal Agreement are details of the ‘transition period’. This is the 20-month period after March 2019, when Brexit is due to happen, whereby the UK will have access to the single market and the customs union until December 2020.

It is crucial for the stability of British business and its economy, while EU and UK sides continue to thrash out the other track of negotiations called the ‘future relationship’.

And even more crucially, also contained in the Withdrawal Treaty is the ‘Irish Protocol’ which is a legally enforceable agreement which states that no matter what happens in the talks between Britain and Brussels, there will be no hard border returned to Northern Ireland. Ever.

Is this also known as the backstop agreement?

Yes. And the EU and Ireland hope never to have to use it. But they need legal assurances because if a border is put up after Brexit, it will contravene the Good Friday Agreement and could be a major threat to political stability.

And nobody wants a return to any political turmoil after 20 years of peace on the island.

So, what’s the hold-up with the backstop – I thought it was agreed back in December?

There was political agreement on it in December. But then the EU issued its legal translation of what the backstop would mean and it was roundly rejected by the British – including Prime Minister Theresa May, who had agreed to it initially.

Why did she renege?

The EU version said that Northern Ireland would have to stay in the EU customs union if there was no other alternative agreement on how better to avoid a border.

Critics said this would amount to an annexation of Northern Ireland and would be an interference in the constitutional order of the United Kingdom. So the British government only has until mid-June to come up with their own legal translation which could be acceptable to all sides.

What will happen if they don’t?

There will be no Withdrawal Agreement. The EU has told the British government that the Irish matter is of utmost importance, and without a solution here, the whole of the Brexit talks could fall.

What does that mean?

It means Britain would crash out of the EU with no transition deal which would be harmful for its economy and businesses.

Is this situation salvageable?

At this point there is no clear solution, but all sides are conscious that crashing out of the EU would be close to catastrophic, so they’ll do their best.

Why doesn’t Ireland have bi-lateral discussions with the UK, seeing as we are the ones who’ll be most affected by Brexit?

Ireland has strong representation within the EU negotiating team, and the Irish Protocol means Irish issues cannot just be cast aside, as they are officially part of the Brexit objectives.

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