The Brexit treaty

Lockdown: EU officials have accused the British government of “cherry-picking” over Brexit.

Yesterday the gut instinct of 17.4 million British people was translated into 120 pages of EU legalese. It has been called the “first draft of history”. What does the Brexit treaty say?

  • What are we talking about?

    The European Union has published its proposed withdrawal agreement with the United Kingdom. The document turns the political pledges made in December into the bureaucratic language of an EU treaty. There are 168 clauses, two protocols and an annex, not exactly light reading.

    But it is historically significant because it is the first draft of what will eventually become Brexit.

  • Who wrote it?

    The European Commission's Task Force 50.

    That probably was not very helpful. They are the EU’s negotiators led by Michel Barnier, a former French cabinet minister turned EU commissioner. The 27 remaining EU countries have the right to make changes, but Barnier has been working with what they have initially approved.

    The UK, however, has not agreed. And there are quite a few points of contention.

  • Such as?

    The big one is over the issue of Northern Ireland.

    When Brexit happens, the UK will have a land border with an EU state — where Northern Ireland meets the Republic of Ireland. Currently, the wiggling border is largely invisible. But Brexit raises the possibility of customs checks, tariffs and possibly even passport checks — something that no party desires. However, these are requirements of current EU law, so a workaround will have to be found.

  • What does the EU propose?

    A "common regulatory area" on the island of Ireland. This means that Northern Ireland would stay in the single market and customs union. The EU says this is their “backstop” option, but in an extraordinary rebuke to the plan at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mrs May said "no UK prime minister could ever agree" to any proposal that erects a hard border.

    May believes the proposal threatens the "constitutional integrity" of the United Kingdom, while Conservative Brexiteers have said it is "completely unacceptable" and would effectively annex Northern Ireland.

    Boris Johnson believes the issue is a fuss about nothing, and that it is being inflated by Remainers as a ploy to keep the whole of the UK in the customs union. Brexiteers see this as a betrayal of the original vote.

    May is in a tough position. Having lost their parliamentary majority in last year’s election, the Tories are dependent on the support of ten Northern Irish MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party. They are more adamantly opposed than anyone to a hard border.

  • Are there any solutions?

    "The clock is ticking; time is short”, said Barnier, representing an EU annoyed by Britain’s silence. The answer is a comprehensive trade agreement, which Barnier has said is looking unlikely because of the UK's insistence that it is leaving the customs union and single market. Innovative technical solutions also received short shrift in the draft.

  • What are some other disagreements?

    The EU is seeking to negotiate on their terms. There are two good examples of this in the document.

    The text establishes the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as the top dispute resolution body for any matters relating to the Brexit agreement. It says the tribunal’s decisions “shall be binding” on the UK.

    It also sets out penalty measures that could be taken if the UK fails to comply with an ECJ judgement on the divorce treaty. This includes financial penalties.

  • What happens next?

    The EU says that the shape of the future relationship with Britain will be spelled out in a political declaration to be agreed later in the year. Talks about that will no begin until April at the earliest.

    Although Brexit is scheduled for March 2019, any agreement must be signed by October in order for it to be approved by the European parliament.

You Decide

  1. Do you expect Brexit to be resolved by the time Britain officially leaves?


  1. Draw a cartoon about the Brexit negotiations, featuring major figures on both sides.

Word Watch

Two protocols and an annex
These are sections appearing outside the main body of the text, but which are just as important. For example, the UK's original opt-outs from issues such as the Euro and the Schengen Area are contained in protocols added at the end of the EU's main treaties.
Largely invisible
People who live near the border often hold two bank accounts, one in sterling and one in euros, and move across the border as if it did not exist.
Boris Johnson
Johnson faced criticism on Tuesday for suggesting in a BBC interview the issue of the border could be managed as easily as London's congestion charging zone.
Yesterday former Tory prime minister and ardent Remainer John Major called for a free vote in Parliament on whether to hold a second EU referendum, describing the government’s strategy as “unrealistic”.
Technical solutions
There could be a political arrangement or the use of technology, which could eliminate the need for border checks when goods are transported. These could range from barcodes to airships.

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The Brexit treaty
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