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Brexit: Government eyes Ukraine-style association agreement with EU

Cabinet will formalise a proposal in the coming weeks with talks deadline looming

Jon Stone
Europe Correspondent
Thursday 21 June 2018 18:27 BST
What is still needed to complete a deal with the EU?

The government is considering a Ukraine-style “association agreement” with the EU to govern future relations with the bloc after Brexit.

The deal, which would include a free trade agreement, regulatory alignment, and cooperation on security and foreign affairs, is being explored in Downing Street, according to a senior cabinet source.

The format, which the EU also has with countries like Georgia and Moldova, would help avoid a complex web of bilateral agreements like the one which governs relations between the EU and Switzerland.

The approach, recommended by the European parliament based on Theresa May’s red lines, would not include single market or customs union membership, but could open the door to more cooperation than a basic free trade agreement, depending on specifics.

A white paper fleshing out the UK position on what the future relationship should look like has been delayed until at least July, pending a cabinet awayday at Chequers to thrash out a unified government position.

But speaking ahead of the meeting a senior cabinet source said: “In terms of what we’re looking for in that future partnership, it will be, I think, wide-ranging.

“A supercharged association agreement isn’t a bad concept to think about. There would be a number of different pillars – there would need to be an economic partnership which should go beyond existing third-country precedents.”

It’s an empty box, you can put whatever you want in it

Senior cabinet source

Association agreements can vary in scope, though the ones with the closest levels of economic cooperation, such as Ukraine’s, are overseen by the European Court of Justice – which Theresa May has said she wants to leave the jurisdiction of. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has said this British red line ruled out such an arrangement.

Ukraine’s agreement, under which the country submits to some ECJ jurisdiction, does not however eliminate border checks on the trade of goods between it and the EU. The UK has said it wants its final agreement with the EU to eliminate the need for any hard border, to solve the Irish border issue.

But when discussing the association agreement format, the senior cabinet source added: “It’s an empty box, you can put whatever you want in it.”

It was reported on Thursday that the prime minister could try to keep the UK in the single market for goods, which might be a component of such a deal.

The idea of an association agreement was first proposed in talks by Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator. The Belgian MEP, who visited Westminster for discussions this week, says the “flexible” system would help avoid creating “a nightmarish web of agreements made up of over a hundred bilateral treaties” as currently exists between the EU and Switzerland.

Government sources say the white paper on the future relationship will be published “relatively soon” after the cabinet meeting at Chequers.

This will give the UK a maximum of three months to negotiate the framework for the future relationship before the October deadline for a deal. An extension of the Article 50 negotiating period is understood to be “not something the British government is considering”.

The deadline is important because the government has repeatedly said it does not believe parliament will actually give its backing to the withdrawal agreement unless there is significant detail provided.

The view in government is also that solving the Irish border issue is “intimately related” to settling the future relationship. “Those things hang together politically,” the senior cabinet source said.

But they said they knew “of no member of the cabinet in London who would be prepared to sign up” to the European Commission plan for the backstop, including “ardent” Remainers.

The delay in the future relationship paper means it will not be published ahead of this month’s European Council summit, where EU national leaders are expected to speak of their “concern” in progress on the Irish border, warn of the risk of a “no deal”, and pledge to step up contingency planning.

After that Brussels meeting the next scheduled summit is in October – the deadline the EU has set for signing a deal in time for the end of the Article 50 period in March, when Britain is set to drop out of the bloc.

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