The outcome of this week’s Summit may have seemed underwhelming but was in fact carefully planned. Statements before the Summit from the EU leaders, including Merkel and Macron, were highly scripted, including on the need for contingency planning.
Beforehand it was already clear that negotiators will take more time (“weeks, possibly months”), and this was also reflected in the most glaring omission: agreeing a date for a Summit to clinch the deal (previously mooted for 17/18 November). There is now talk of a December deal and Summit. All of this seems targeted at minimising the period for Brexiteers to damage the chances of the deal getting through at the vote at Westminster, which remains the critical hurdle. The downside is that this doesn’t leave a large margin for error if the Commons votes the deal down.
The offer to extend the transition period by a number of months is interesting, because it admits that the current period until end 2020 is not enough to find a solution for the future relationship. Nevertheless, as Barnier has said, the Withdrawal Agreement needs to provide a legally sound fix for the Irish border issue, regardless of the transition period or future relationship. This is also a critical issue for the European Parliament.In the meantime, intelligence points to the Commission publishing a no-deal ‘roadmap’ as early as next week. Heads of Cabinet are scheduled to discuss the plan on Monday. Presumably this is a follow-on from the Commission’s no-deal notices to stakeholders, the discussion with Ambassadors on contingency measures two weeks ago, and a response to the French and German legislative packages aimed at mitigating the effects of a possible cliff-edge.
At this stage there is no official planning for next steps in the formal negotiations, however these will continue at a technical and negotiator level. The key moment is going to be when Chief Negotiator Barnier declares that “sufficient progress” has been made on the remaining issues in the Withdrawal Agreement, especially on Ireland. At that moment, a Summit will be called and timelines will become clear. That Summit will be used to politically agree the deal by both sides, before ratification in the UK and EU (by the Council and the European Parliament) commence.
We are still awaiting further details of the Political Declaration on the future relationship. The ambition of this Declaration will be crucial for May selling the deal in the Commons, even if it is not legally binding and MPs may continue to focus on the issue of the Irish backstop.