Key questions about UK’s relationship with EU still unanswered, experts warn, after deal published

Spider’s web of new committees, working groups and arbitration tribunals hints at further negotiations

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Sunday 27 December 2020 00:08
Boris Johnson announces historic Brexit trade deal with EU

Many key aspects of the UK’s future relationship with the EU are still up in the air, experts have warned, despite Downing Street hailing its Brexit deal as a “moment of national renewal”.

The 1,255-page document – published on Saturday – left numerous questions unanswered about professional qualifications, asylum rights, financial services and other issues, they said.

The text also contains no fewer than 244 references to “arbitration tribunals” and a further 170 to a “partnership council” – the bodies that will decide the details and settle future disputes, hinting at further negotiations.

Anton Spisak, a Brexit expert at the Tony Blair Institute, said 19 specialised committees and four working groups would hold at least 21 meetings each year, excluding aspects affecting Northern Ireland.

“I’m astonished how thin the deal is,” he said, adding: “This falls even below the standard of some recent EU FTAs [free trade agreements].”

Georgina Wright, associate at the Institute for Government, said: “There is still a lot of information that’s a little bit vague. The text is so legally dense and businesses want to know practical measures.”

She said the UK could now “diverge when it wants”, but warned of counter-measures, adding: “That comes at a price. You see that throughout the whole of the agreement.”

Among the issues not nailed down by the agreement sealed on Christmas Eve are:

* Financial services – with future rules “still to be established”, a government source admitted, despite the sector employing more than 1 million people, paying more than £75bn in tax.

* Professional qualifications in services jobs – with nothing agreed on their recognition in the EU, despite the UK enjoying a huge surplus in such exports.

* No agreement to allow the government to return asylum seekers to EU countries with the expiry of the Dublin Regulation – despite Priti Patel’s vow that it would be easier after Brexit.

* No data sharing deal for the UK chemicals industry – landing it with a £1bn bill to build its own database of approved products – with the level of cooperation with the EU undecided.

* The food industry protested at the absence of an “equivalence” agreement – which left New Zealand with a closer deal, requiring fewer checks and less paperwork.

And David Allen Green, a lawyer and leading Brexit commentator, pointed to “dozens and dozens of UK-EU talking shops”, saying: “Welcome to the future, negotiations without end.”

The European Research Group (ERG) of hard Brexit-backing Conservative MPs said it was studying the text before deciding whether to vote against it on Wednesday, having convened a self-styled “star chamber” of lawyers.

“We are in the process of analysing it, said veteran Europhobe Bill Cash, adding: “Sovereignty is the key issue. The ECJ [European Court of Justice] is part of that.”

In a message to Tory MPs, the prime minister acknowledged that “the devil is in the detail” of the agreement, but insisted it would stand up to the ERG’s inspection.

David Frost, No 10's chief negotiator, celebrated “one of the biggest and broadest agreements ever” that would ensure the UK “sets its own laws again”.

“The way we've achieved that is there's no more role for the European Court of Justice, there's no direct effects of EU law, there's no alignment of any kind, and we're out of the single market and out of the customs union just as the manifesto said we would be,” he said.

“This should be the beginning of a moment of national renewal for us. All choices are in our hands as a country and it's now up to us to decide how we use them and how we go forward in the future.”

But a former national security adviser warned the sharing of vital crime-fighting data would be “slower and more clunky” under the deal.  

And the head of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisation (NFFO), accused Mr Johnson of having “bottled it” on fishing quotas, securing only “a fraction of what the UK has a right to under international law”.

“Lacking legal, moral or political negotiating leverage on fish, the EU made the whole trade deal contingent on a UK surrender on fisheries,” Barrie Deas said.

The share of fish in British waters that the UK can catch will rise from about half now to less than two-thirds by the end of a five-and-a-half-year transition.

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