Pre-Christmas harmony between Brussels and London: According to high-ranking European Union (EU) officials, including President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the Chief Brexit Negotiator, Michel Barnier, in addition to the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, a breakthrough has been achieved after several months of negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. A statement from the European Commission confirmed that “sufficient progress” had been made for a recommendation to be made at the EU summit next week for negotiations to proceed into a second phase. If this does happen, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has announced his intention for negotiations to immediately deal with the issues of a transition period and future trade relationship. The pound sterling reacted extremely well to this news, climbing to its highest value against the euro since June this year.
The breakthrough was evidently made after Theresa May’s promise that there would be no hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Accordingly, either EU Single Market regulations would continue to apply in Northern Ireland or the UK would put forward a solution acceptable to the EU. An agreement has also been struck on the UK’s payment obligations. Downing Street will continue making financial contributions to the EU budget until 2020 and will honour long-term financial obligations. Furthermore, the European Commission has also announced that, under this agreement, the rights of EU citizens living in the UK would be guaranteed under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECoJ). If these pledges are ultimately enshrined in the EU Withdrawal Treaty announced by the European Commission, then it would represent a significant success for Brussels.
Nevertheless, there are many stumbling blocks still in place. The success for the EU’s negotiating team will be hard to swallow for some in Theresa May’s ranks back in the UK. An internal revolt led by Brexit hardliners cannot be ruled out. Moreover, it is doubtful how a hard border on the island of Ireland can ultimately be avoided. In terms of the financial settlement, Prime Minister May spoke of a Brexit divorce bill that is “fair to the British taxpayer”, whatever that is supposed to mean. And, as the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, aptly put it: “[…] let us remember that the most difficult challenge is still ahead.” Without wanting to rain on the parade and belittle what has been achieved, excessive euphoria would seem inappropriate at this stage.