Since Mrs May first announced just over a week ago that agreement had been reached with the EU-27 on the arrangements for the UK’s withdrawal from the Union, the press and other media have naturally been full of analysts and commentators responding to it and giving us their thoughts.
MPs from all sides have also joined in, and many have been quick to pass judgment on the deal. So far the balance has not been encouraging for Mrs May: most of her fellow MPs who have spoken on the agreement have preferred to find fault with some or other aspect of it – many suspiciously quickly, and unless they are all champion speed-readers, one queries whether they have had time to even glance at the document, far less read all 500-plus pages of it in detail.
But this is hardly a surprise. For all their clearing of throats and attention-seeking statements, very few if any MPs have strayed very far beyond their established stance and expected knee-jerk response.
For ourselves, we find the withdrawal deal difficult to judge for two reasons. The first and more obvious one is that it is very long, very detailed and very complex. Much of it is technical and seeking to address issues where the average reader will not even understand the problem, let alone the solution. To make the understatement of the year, it is not an easy read.
The second is that much depends on the spirit in which the deal, and even more the future relationship which will follow the transition period, are implemented. Goodwill and flexibility on both sides could yet make a success of what has been tortuous process. But the odds on that, based on the way the negotiations have run so far, do not at the moment seem particularly high.
Most of the concern from the commentators and analysts has focused on quite how much – or rather how little – autonomy the UK will have during the transition period and after. It does seem anomalous that whereas the UK can unilaterally decide to leave the EU as a sovereign act (in theory at least, even if the practice is rather different, as the last two years have shown) and the rest of the EU cannot stop its departure, Britain cannot leave the subsequent trading agreement that both sides hope to put in its place without agreement from the EU.
No other state that has a trade agreement with the EU has to secure their consent to ending it, and on this point it is hard not to agree with the Brexiteers when they claim that it makes the UK less sovereign than at present not more. It does not exactly meet the campaign slogan “Vote Leave, take back control” which was so attractive to 52% of the electorate 2 years ago.
But then Mrs May has never really understood that slogan, has never really understood what those who voted to Leave really meant by their vote. She appears to think it was all about immigration, perhaps because she has her own personal issues with the subject.
She was fixated by controlling immigration when Home Secretary, and as Prime Minister has stuck to and defended the most rigid and harsh applications of immigration controls even when virtually her entire cabinet has been against her, for example over her insistence on counting foreign students in the immigration figures. Nor has she ever shown the slightest understanding of, let alone regret for, the furore her hostile stance has caused, not even when it blew up over the treatment of the Windrush generation earlier this year and cost her her ally and friend Amber Rudd.
It is deeply revealing that in her “Letter to the Nation”, her defence and justification of the deal to a sceptical electorate, the control of immigration is what she leads on. This is clearly what she thinks is her big achievement. The ceding of autonomy over Northern Ireland’s trading regime, over the rules governing UK trade with the EU, over the UK’s ability to sign trade agreements with third nations, over fishing in the UK’s territorial waters (a major issue for the UK fishing industry), over Gibraltar, over ending whatever trade agreement is eventually concluded – all of these and more she skates over or ignores completely.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that for all her talk of multiple red lines, it is really only the immigration red line that Mrs May really cared about and made a breaking point, or the thought that the EU, having spotted this, have ensured that she gets her way on this single issue – while using her fixation to force concessions from her on almost everything else.
It was no surprise that the EU-27 quickly accepted and approved the deal yesterday. It is after all, as we observed in our article last week, pretty heavily slanted towards their interests. The debate in the House of Commons, and what happens next if the government loses the vote, is a different matter however and remains difficult to predict. The EU-27’s approval in Brussels yesterday of the agreement, for all that it is a necessary part of the process, has not really changed that, or taken us very much closer to a resolution.