In Depth

What is Theresa May’s secret Brexit deal?

Breakthrough in negotiations reported ahead of crucial few days for the PM

Theresa May heads into a make-or-break week of Brexit negotiations amid widespread reports that she is close to securing a withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU.

The next eight days “will be the last chance both the UK and EU have to arrange a special November summit later this month”, says HuffPost’s Paul Waugh.

However, the prime minister is said to have rowed back on claims this weekend that a deal in principle had been struck already. May spent Sunday “telephoning key cabinet ministers as Downing Street sought to calm fears that she was about to dash to the finishing line of Brexit talks”, according to The Times’ Francis Elliott. 

“The prime minister will update the Cabinet [this week] on the state of talks, but allies insisted that she would not present ministers with a draft deal already agreed in outline,” he adds.

The Telegraph’s Peter Foster also believes that a deal has yet to be done, but insists it may be agreed this week. “Theresa May’s top Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, [is preparing] to go to Brussels to clinch an in-principle Brexit divorce deal this week, triggering an extraordinary EU leaders summit later this month,” Foster says.

So what definitely has been agreed between the UK and the EU, and what remains to be resolved?

What has been agreed?

“The prime minister is expected to confirm she has resolved with the EU the future status of Gibraltar, developed a protocol around the UK’s military base in Cyprus and agreed a mechanism for resolving any future disputes with the EU,” reports The Guardian.

May is also believed to have fixed the divorce bill at £39bn; agreed to an implementation period extending to the end of 2020 at least; and determined the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in EU member states, says the newspaper.

What still needs to be resolved?

The main sticking point continues to be the Irish backstop, intended to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The Sunday Times reported this weekend that there had been a breakthrough on the issue, with the EU now accepting “that regulatory checks on goods can take place ‘in the market’ by British officials, meaning they can be conducted at factories and shops rather than at the border”. The newspaper added that the withdrawal agreement would also feature an all-UK customs deal, eliminating the need for an EU-designed backstop that would see Northern Ireland treated differently from the UK mainland. 

But the Telegraph’s Foster quotes a negotiating source who fears that negotiations are “going backwards” on the backstop issue, following a heated meeting between Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney last week.

Raab is said to have “stunned” his Irish counterparts by suggesting that the UK should have the right to pull out of the customs deal to keep the Irish border open, with just three months’ notice.

The frosty status of relations between the UK and Ireland has been underlined by a tweet from Coveney that said: “The Irish position remains consistent and v clear⁩ that a ‘time-limited backstop’ or a backstop that could be ended by UK unilaterally would never be agreed to by IRE or EU. These ideas are not backstops at all + don’t deliver on previous UK commitments.” 

Meanwhile, EU officials and diplomats have “cautioned against the optimism expressed by some about the imminence of a breakthrough, describing the chances of striking a deal that meets both sides needs as ‘50-50’”, says The Guardian

“The reality is that we need a November summit more than the EU do,” a UK government source told the paper.

Almost everyone at Westminster “expects that there will be movement on Brexit some point late this week or early the next”, says the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush. 

But “by ‘movement’, of course, what they mean is that the United Kingdom will make a concession that May will desperately try to package as a defeat for the EU27”, Bush adds.

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