Tory MPs and members of the European Research Group (ERG) (R-L) Bill Cash, Mark Francois, Iain Duancan Smith and Steve Baker leave Downing Street after group's meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this year (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What’s in the Brexit deal?

Four things the ERG’s ‘star chamber’ will need to consider before voting for the Brexit deal

We learnt a fair bit from the joint press conference with Ursula von der Leyen and Michel Barnier, and a small amount from a separate conference held by Boris Johnson about what is contained in the Brexit deal. After Labour said they were going to back it (despite the fact they haven’t read it), actually passing the legislation in Westminster on Wednesday will be academic, but Boris Johnson keenly wants the support of Tory eurosceptics in order to truly claim that he has “got Brexit done”. The prime minister is painfully well aware that for him Brexit starts and ends as a problem inside the soul of his party.

In the absence of the full legal text, here are four things that may keep Brexiteers in the Conservative Party worried in the coming days. Perversely, Labour’s support for the Deal and the Bill that rushes it into effect (so unlike the EU’s approach, which remains slow and deliberate), may free up Tory MPs to indulge themselves in a rebellion which now can only be symbolic. Since there is no longer any danger that a vote against can prolong the parliamentary agony of Brexit. His ring round of colleagues started long before the Deal was formally confirmed today.

1. The Withdrawal Agreement remains in place

A summary text published by the EU confirms that the trade deal agreed today does not annul the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol which will be implemented on 1 January. The exact wording will need looking at in close detail by Brexiteers but it was a key demand of the ERG that any deal removes the protocol and keeps Northern Ireland firmly within the UK’s VAT and tariff regime. Brexiteers have already suggested the agreement made by Michael Gove in the Joint Committee to look at the Northern Ireland border has only a minimal effect in terms of mitigating the NIP’s problems and that it has no legal standing.

2. The level playing field

The UK’s summary document says the EU “was forced to drop its ambitious demands for dynamic alignment and for the UK to be legally required to maintain equivalent legislative systems to the EU’s in some areas” but the EU’s document announces “businesses in the EU and the UK compete on a level playing field and will avoid either party using its regulatory autonomy to grant unfair subsidies or distort competition”. The EU announced at the press conference that they’d be able to impose “unilateral sanctions” on the UK, but in his press conference Boris Johnson insisted that it would be an independent panel who decided who was at fault, which implies the EU would not have the right to impose sanctions unilaterally.  Who’s correct? The full legal text should make it clearer who’s got it right and who’s spinning the truth.

3. The independence of arbitration bodies

At his press conference Boris Johnson insisted that the European Court of Justice would not be deciding upon trade disputes, and that these would be subject to an “independent” panel instead. The EU revealed there will also be a Joint Partnership Council, “who will make sure the Agreement is properly applied and interpreted, and in which all arising issues will be discussed”. Is this second body independent of the EU? And should the UK put any faith in so called independent panels when it comes to the EU, not least given the role they’re being created to fulfil? Which currently looks a lot like doing what the EU would do anyway, but nominally outside its formal structures for doing so.

4. Timing

There are just six days until MPs will be asked to vote on this in parliament and it’s unlikely that Bill Cash’s ERG ‘Star Chamber’ of lawyers can digest the entire deal in that time. One ERG MP told me if they didn’t feel they had enough time to scrutinise the text, they planned to vote against the programme motion, the parliamentary timetable for the legislation. This would indicate that they were not against it, but that they did not have enough time to come to a decision. A number of ERG MPs have privately expressed their regret at voting for Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement earlier this year, amidst the elation of getting “a deal” and despite all the pressure from the whips, the ERG will be keen not to let their guard down this time.

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