The Brexit negotiations reached a major milestone on 25 November 2018. After the chief negotiators on both sides – the UK Government and the European Commission, which represents the EU27 – had reached a provisional agreement, the Heads of State and Government of the EU27 approved the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK at a special meeting of the European Council. This meeting brought up mixed feelings – on the one hand, regret about the UK’s withdrawal from the EU after 45 years of membership, on the other, relief about the agreement reached, which will facilitate an orderly withdrawal and create a basis for agreeing the closest possible future relationship with the UK.
Two main documents
The negotiations were not always easy, but the outcome is a fair compromise on which both sides made concessions. Over the past 18 months, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his team have been working flat out on behalf of the EU27 and on the basis of the guidelines provided by the European Council to ensure a positive outcome to the negotiations. The agreement between the EU27 and the UK contains two main documents:
1. The Withdrawal Agreement
The 585-page Withdrawal Agreement lays down the arrangements for the withdrawal. These include the following key aspects, which were of particular importance to us: there will be comprehensive protection of the rights of our citizens who live in the UK; they can continue to live, work and study there, and to enjoy social security. The UK’s financial obligations are also laid down in the agreement. Furthermore, the Withdrawal Agreement safeguards the open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and thus the peace in Northern Ireland that was painstakingly achieved 20 years ago. In accordance with the European Council’s guidelines, the Court of Justice of the European Union will play an important role in monitoring and implementing the agreement. By agreeing a transition period until the end of 2020 (which can be extended once for up to two years), we have also created time for talks on the future relationship. This will provide the business sector and members of the public with important planning certainty.
2. The Political Declaration
The Political Declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK sets out the framework for future relations. The transition period laid down in the Withdrawal Agreement is to be used to formally negotiate the future relationship on the basis of the Political Declaration after the UK has left the EU. The Declaration essentially envisages an economic partnership and a security partnership. In the economic field, the goal is a wide-ranging partnership to be achieved by the creation of a free-trade zone without customs duties and quotas, underpinned by guarantees on fair competition, and deep regulatory and customs cooperation. As regards the security partnership, the aim is comprehensive and close cooperation in the field of internal and external security based on reciprocity. Through effective data exchange and cooperation in the fight against terrorism financing we will continue to ensure our citizens’ security. It is equally important that foreign policy cooperation continues to be as close as possible. The UK remains part of our community of shared values and activity in Europe, and this Europe faces immense challenges at the international level. In view of this, we will continue to need the closest possible foreign and security policy partnership with the UK.
What happens next?
The agreement reached in Brussels is thus a very important step, as much is at stake. However, we have not yet reached our final destination. What happens now?
In the EU, the Withdrawal Agreement will be submitted to the European Parliament for a vote in accordance with Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. After the Agreement has been approved, the General Affairs Council will formally agree the conclusion of the Agreement. Ratification by the national parliaments of the EU27 is not necessary.
On the UK side, the “meaningful vote” originally scheduled for 11 December has been postponed. It is now not likely to take place until the new year. Following this, parliament (the House of Commons and the House of Lords) will have to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. Given the significance of the decision and the political debates in the UK, it is clear this will not be an easy process. However, it is also clear that withdrawal without an agreement on 29 March 2019 would have serious consequences for everyone. Germany is thus continuing to prepare for this eventuality. However, our interest and hopes continue to lie with ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement and the establishment of the closest possible future relationship on this basis.