Red Red Lines – Brexit Update

This week the European Parliament debated the guidelines for the next phase of the Brexit negotiations. The resolution, that was approved by a very large majority, was heavily trailed in advance, though not all of the detail had made it into the media.

UK Labour MEPs abstained on the final vote on the resolution. It is properly the position of the EU27 and there were some aspects of the wording that, while largely statements of fact, could be misrepresented as being against the UK Government pursuing a successful negotiation. The Green Party and the sole LibDem voted for the resolution while, perversely, the Conservatives and UKIP voted against (with the exception of two who had the good sense to abstain). Aside from the strangeness of voting on the negotiating position of the other side when you want to leave, had the Tories and UKIP got their way the negotiations would have been unable to progress for the moment. The Conservatives took the whip away from two of their number who voted for the statement of fact that that sufficient progress had not been made in October (when there was no agreement between the UK and the EU27) yet now they vote against getting on with the job.

You can read the whole resolution, as amended - though there were very few amendments carried, here or via the European Parliament website. In summary, however, the following highlights are worth drawing out:

The draft withdrawal agreement

This is the draft legal document that is the basis of a treaty between the EU27 and the UK confirming the terms of the UK’s withdrawal. It is the ‘first phase’ agreement from December turned into formal legal language - so there are no real surprises. It can, however, still be changed and improved as agreed between the two parties. It does NOT answer the outstanding dilemma over the Irish border.

Citizens’ rights

This area, of great concern to many in through the EU, was covered in the first phase, however, aspects of the agreement on the rights of EU Citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU27 left a lot to be desired. In particular the rights of UK citizens living and working in the EU27 would be limited and qualitatively different to those enjoyed at present. The language of the resolution indicates that the EU27 is open to the current level of rights to be recognised and extended to include the right of future spouses. Future children had already been brought into the framework because of the Parliament’s influence, hopefully the UK government can now see it will be pushing at an open door to achieve better rights for its citizens who have built careers in the EU27.


The resolution confirms the EU27 view that the transition period from 29 March 2019 to 31 December 2020 will be under the current EU law and under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and that new EU legislation will apply to the UK during that period. You might ask then what is the point of transition at all? Because the UK would then be technically outside of the EU institutions the UK would be able to negotiate its own agreements with other ‘third countries’ (that’s the Euro jargon for countries outside the EU).

Though there is much talk of the transition providing stability and certainty for business, as things stand it simply puts off the problem by extending a plank over the cliff edge. 21 months isn’t long as international agreements go. There is also the distinct possibility that the UK could agreed to ‘park’ some of the more difficult issues to be sorted out during the transition when in fact the real purpose is to hide from the public the almost uniformly negative consequences of Brexit until it is too late.

The exact terms of the transition are the next thing that will be negotiated between the UK and the EU27, with hopes for an agreement at the March EU summit. In truth, given that the UK has little option but to accept the EU acquis (pron. a-kee) will apply there is not much top negotiate. Progress may depend upon the ongoing discussions on Ireland.

The future relationship and all that trade stuff

There is a difference in the cultures of the EU27 and the UK toward the negotiation. The EU prepares and issues detailed documents while the UK makes announcements in speeches. This is not my jaundiced take on things, it’s also what the UK Government says. This is all very well, but it has put the UK at a serious disadvantage and not helped. Part of a negotiation is understanding the other party and its mindset. It would appear that this has not really sunk in in Whitehall. The UK continues to talk in general and vague terms about what it wants while. The Parliament resolution (something else rather useful that Westminster doesn’t really do - not that the Government would allow mere MPs a say over that sort of thing) is, however, very clear about the kind of relationship that might be possible for the UK. The resolution states repeatedly that the ‘red lines’ set out by the UK Government (it seems more able to say what it doesn’t want than what it does want) rule out some forms of future relationship, nothing else does. It is crystal clear that the EU27 remains open to talking about a wider range of relationships should the UK government wish to approach the latest phase without pre-conditions. Everything from remaining in the single market, a relationship encompassing financial services to customs unions (and of course cancelling the whole self-harming Brexit project) on still available if only the UK government approached the negotiations with an open mind.

Given that this would seem unlikely, the resolution states that the best available option for the UK is a ‘Canada like deal’. That is a free trade agreement covering goods, not services and certainly not financial services. Such a deal would mean customs checks at Dover and elsewhere and the UK would have to meet EU standards to ensure access for UK goods. For an economy which is 80% services this is somewhat less than half a loaf.

On matters like fishing and agriculture the EU27 make it clear that for products to enter EU markets at all every standard will need to be met and that historic fishing rights will have to be respected. So much for controlling territorial waters.

Outside opting in

The Prime Minister of Luxembourg has described the situation thus: “The UK is inside opting out but will soon be outside opting in”. But what does ‘opting in’ mean?

The Parliament resolution is very clear in stating that the UK cannot expect to ‘cherry pick’ the aspects of EU markets and rules that it likes and avoid that things that are inconvenient. The EU27 have said all along and the Parliament resolution repeated the point that it simply won’t be possible to make an exception for this or that sector - say automotive and chemicals, while the rest of the economy sits outside the internal market. The UK can, however, opt in to EU programmes at a price.

In the UK media the fact that the UK Government has expressed desire to be part of the European Arrest Warrant, Europol and the Medicine Agency (that’s the one moving from London to Amsterdam) in the form of one of Theresa May’s speeches is sufficient to make it so. The reality is a little different. Participation in programmes, agencies and treaties (some for which there is no precedent - the EWA for example) will need, according to the Parliament resolution and Commission and Council statements, to be wrapped into an ‘Association Agreement’, the rationale being that the plethora of requirements of these very different areas of work will be best brought under a single umbrella agreement between the EU27 and the UK. In the end this is what will provide Theresa May with the fig leaf of having achieved “a deep and special partnership” - even when it is a good deal more shallow and considerably less special than that enjoyed at present.


One area where the Parliament resolution builds on the seeming consensus between the parties is security co-operation. The EU27 are highly likely to want the UK involved in these essential networks. Even so, the Parliament resolution, while very positive about security co-operation, highlights the terms on which the UK can take part which is, essentially, accepting the EU rules and requirements on data an other sensitive issues.

So finally ...

The Parliament resolution takes a stage further Theresa May’s acceptance that ‘things will be different’ by setting out exactly how they will be different if the Tories maintain their current ‘hard Brexit’ approach expressed by their ‘red lines’. The EU27 position is open to the UK government changing its mind and dropping the red lines. The best that’s on offer right now is an agreement like that of Canada but, even though we’ve played out 21 months of this tragedy, the UK government still hasn’t said what they actually want in their ‘deep and special partnership’.

Oh and then there’s the Irish border ...