The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Strahinja Subotic, a Researcher at the European Policy Centre – CEP, Belgrade.

One and a half year has passed since the government of the United Kingdom (UK), led by Prime Minister (PM) Theresa May, activated Article 50 of the Treaty on EU (TEU). By doing so, as of March 2017, the UK started the countdown timer and initiated a two-year period to settle its divorce from the Union. Fast-forward to mid-November 2018, after long and uneasy negotiations the UK and EU negotiators, managed to finally reach an agreement on the entirety of the draft Withdrawal Agreement. Yet, the Brexit process is now at a turning point, as it remains uncertain whether PMMay will succeed in obtaining UK Parliament’s political support for this Agreement, or even survive a possible no-confidence vote. This happens amid resignations of her ministers, most notably her Brexit secretary DomicRaab, which occurred just moments after the deal was agreed to by the UK Cabinet.

The aim of this article is to examine how and why Brexit negotiations have turned out to be such a difficult and demanding task. Hence, in the following parts, the key issues of negotiations are presented and analysed, with a special focus on the question of Northern Ireland as it has turned out to be the biggest and almost unsolvable issue.

Brexit is Far from Over

Throughout the negotiating process, both the EU and the UK have been well aware that no post-Brexit option could meet or outmatch the benefits provided by EU membership.[1]Nevertheless, the process continued, and right from the beginning it became clear that the following issues would represent key and essential areas which would require the utmostattention[2]: issues related to citizen’s rights, the issue of financial settlement, and theNorthern Ireland border issue.

After six rocky rounds of negotiations in 2017, both parties reached an agreement in principle in all three areas under consideration. First, a common understanding was found on introducing reciprocal guarantees to safeguard the status and rights of (three million) EU citizens and (one million) UK citizens, derived from the EU law.[3] Then, the UK made a commitment to honour its share of financial obligations undertaken while it was an EU member[4] – it is estimated that the size of the financial settlement will amount to around 40 billion euros (£37.1 billion).[5] Finally, the UK essentially agreed to keep an open border with the Republic of Ireland, by accepting the so-called ’backstop’ solution, which would act as a binding guarantee that there would be no hard border unless and until another solution is found.So far so good? Well, not really.

What made the whole process especially difficult was the UK’s stated intention to fully withdraw both from the EU Customs Union and Single Market after the end of the transition period.[6]With its strict red lines, the UK government essentially made Northern Ireland the single greatest issue of the negotiations, as having no borders with the Republic of Ireland is hardly possible without remaining in the EU Customs Union and Single Market.

The Issue of Northern Ireland – Raising the Stakes

In 2017 April guidelines, the European Council indicated that “flexible and imaginative solutions” will be required in view of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. Namely, what made Northern Ireland such a sensitive issue was the fact that it had gone through a three-decade-long conflict dubbed “the Troubles”, during which around 3500 people had been killed. Simply put, the fighting had broken out between the Unionists (Protestants) and Republicans (Catholics), whereas the former wanted to keep Northern Ireland as part of the UK, while the latter had desired to reunify the whole island of Ireland.

Meanwhile, the year of 2018 marked exactly two decades since this violent period was brought to an end with the signing of the EU-supported[7]Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement).[8] Since then, Northern Ireland has witnessed occasional turbulence and instability, but the Good Friday Agreement nonetheless stood the test of time. With its enactment, not only has the conflict seized, but the military surveillance posts and border controls were done away with as well, thus allowing the normalisation of life on the Island and gradual mitigation of divisions among the post-conflict communities to take place.


Therefore, Brexit puts the reconciliation process and peace of the Island at stake, as it not only violates the Good Friday Agreement’s assumption of a continued joint UK-Irish membership of the EU, but also goes against the basic principles upon which it was founded – free movement of people, increased social and economic cooperation, and further integration of the Island as a whole. Knowing this, many have warned that the reintroduction of the hard border could, in fact, drive a wedge between the communities, as they still bear the scars of the conflicts from the past.

To prevent such scenario from occurring, in February 2018,the EU proposed establishing a “common regulatory area” across the island of Ireland, which would effectively keep Northern Ireland within the EU Customs Union and Single Market, whilst excluding the rest of the UK. This proposal was, however, refused by PM May under the rationale that it would create an unacceptable “customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea”.Moreover, the UK’s reluctance to make compromises on Northern Ireland is probably best explained by the fact that PM May’s coalition partner, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has used its bargaining power to strongly advocate for a fully integrated UK and to oppose making any concessions in that matter. Furthermore, a large number of UK ministers as well as conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) have shared the same concerns and demands. Hence, the significant divisions among UK’s political elites have made the negotiations all the more difficult to handle, which is why PM May has constantly struggled to find the right balance between advocates of a “soft” and a “hard” Brexit.


Preventing the ‘No Deal’ Scenario in the Last-minute Negotiations

The latest Withdrawal Agreement caused significant turbulence in London, as the negotiating sides agreed that the backstop solution for Northern Ireland would be in fact consisted of a single EU-UK customs territory, whilst keeping Northern Ireland aligned with a certain number of rules that are related to EU’s Single Market. Even though such an arrangement may indeed contradict some ofPM May’s originally established lines, it nevertheless represents a solution which is highly likely to sustain peace in Northern Ireland, as it would, in fact, ensure that the status quo is kept, i.e. open borders, free flow of people and frictionless trade.

All in all, whereas the Brexit negotiations function under the principle that ‘nothing is agreed until everything agreed’, the issue of Northern Ireland has the potential to disrupt all the work done thus far if PM May ends up being unsuccessful in getting a green light from her ministers and MPs, as well as EU27 leaders, in the upcoming days. In that case, given that the UK is running out of time, the ‘no deal’ scenario would become a very realistic option. Whether PM May will manage to overcome her last and the biggest obstacle in the whole process, it will be known soon enough.



[1] PM May has publicly stated that even though the UK will enjoy less access to EU’s market, it will nevertheless leave the Union, as this was the will of the people.

[2]Other separation issues covered by negotiations were the following: Euratom-related (nuclear specific) issues; ensuring continuity in the availability of goods placed on the market under Union law before withdrawal; judicial cooperation in civil and commercial matters; police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters; ongoing Union judicial procedures; ongoing Union administrative proceedings; and issues relating to the functioning of the Union institutions, agencies and bodies.

[3] The agreement covers the following issues: residence, administrative procedures, social security coordination, professional qualifications and governance. However, some other relevant issues regarding citizens’ rights remain yet to be agreed upon.

[4] UK’s financial obligations are in relation to the following: the EU budget (and in particular the Multiannual Financial Framework 2014-2020), the European Investment Bank, the European Central Bank, the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, EU Trust Funds, Council agencies and also the European Development Fund.

[5] According to the UK’s independent budget watchdog Office for Budget Responsibility, UK’s financial commitments may be broken down in the following manner: half of the money is to be paid by the end of the transitional period (i.e. December 2020) as part of the EU’s Multi-Annual Financial Framework 2014-20; most of the other half is to be paid by 2028 (money is also known as reste a? liquider); and finally, a small part of the financial deal (6.25%) is directed towards the coverages of pensions of EU officials and Members of the European Parliament – until 2064.

[6] In March 2018, the chief negotiators of the UK’s withdrawal process, Michele Barnier (EU) and David Davis (UK), have both agreed to have a transitional period which would last until 31 December 2020 – Article 121 of the Draft Withdrawal Agreement. Both having made compromises, it was agreed that during this period the UK will be allowed to sign its own trade deals with third countries (something which the EU originally had opposed), while the UK will need to continue implementing EU rules drawn without its input, as well as guaranteeing the freedom of movement of people (something which the UK originally opposed).

[7]The EU has shown a great deal of creativity in this case, by offering substantial economic funds to the impoverished Northern Ireland, using its policy of “conditioning“, through which it had tried to incentivise the establishment of co-operation between authorities, organizations, firms and political actors on both sides of the conflict in return for its funds.

[8] Good Friday Agreement has regulated the relationship between the following: Republicans (Catholic) and Unionists (Protestant) from Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Additionally, it has left the possibility to the people of Northern Ireland to express their wish for reunification with the Republic of Ireland in the future. If a post-Brexit solution does not tackle the issue of Northern Ireland in a suitable manner, a possibility lies open that it might, in near or distant future, decide to secede from the UK and re-join the Republic of Ireland. With no doubt, the UK is definitely set on avoiding such a scenario from occurring.

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