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Brexit: Decoupling the Political Declaration

Andrew Duff

Date: 02/04/2019

The House of Commons is paralysed. The art of compromise is lost. Although most MPs want an orderly Brexit, the unholy alliance of extremists on both sides of the argument impedes the passage of the deal. Too many Brexiteers are pitching at no deal. And too many Remainers will only agree to one or another outcome if it is achieved through a second referendum. The Labour leadership, meanwhile, repeats that it objects to the Political Declaration (PD) but not the Withdrawal Agreement (WA).

Regardless of the merits of these excuses for not supporting the deal (one has one’s views), a new tactic is required to end the paralysis.

The Political Declaration is a complicated document which benchmarks the several different options for Britain’s future relationship. As Michel Barnier repeated today, it permits a wide range of outcomes. I have previously argued that the best way to ensure the softest of Brexits would be to revise and upgrade the PD. The EU is ready and willing to do this.

Nevertheless, the indicative votes organised by Oliver Letwin suggest that, at least at this stage, the job of revising the PD in any particular direction confounds the Commons. Most MPs retain a high degree of illiteracy about the European project even after all these years of stuttering membership, and neither the government nor opposition leads the way to a solution. Although another attempt will be made on Wednesday to secure the deal, it is likely that London needs more time to build a consensus about Britain’s long-term European future.

Reversing my previous gratuitous advice, I now recommend that the European Council splits off the Withdrawal Agreement from the Political Declaration. The WA is the indispensable legal treaty of 28. The PD is a product of 27+1, politically but not legally binding.

At their meeting on 10 April, the 27 heads of government should approve the PD on a provisional basis and commit to treating its revision as a priority during the transition phase. This tactic, I think, would meet the requirements of Article 50(2). The Commission and Council will be tasked on this basis to work out the mandate for the negotiation of the final association agreement with the British.

Hardliners at Westminster will claim they are being asked to leave the EU without a clear idea of where they are headed — but that is their fault and nobody else’s. Although Mrs May will have to take note of the provisional PD (and not to object to it), the UK parliament will not be asked to vote for the present draft. In exchange for securing a deal on Brexit on 22 May under the terms of the WA, the EU will be giving the Brits more time for calmer reflection about the way ahead.

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