Politics Explained

How Boris Johnson’s Brexit backtrack puts more than trade at risk

Making changes at this stage opens up the entire withdrawal agreement, writes Sean O’Grady

Monday 07 September 2020 19:11 BST
Treaties, once agreed, cannot be cherry-picked
Treaties, once agreed, cannot be cherry-picked ( EPA)

The UK-EU withdrawal agreement is the “divorce settlement” for Brexit, and was finally signed last October, endorsed by the British electorate in the December general election, and approved by the new House of Commons in January. It was also endorsed by the EU authorities (it did not need to be ratified by all regional and national assemblies, as any further trade deal will be). It came into force on 1 February. It covers the transition arrangements due to end on 31 December, plus some continuing aspects of UK-EU relations, such as citizens’ rights and the Irish border, and maintains the Good Friday Agreement.

Boris Johnson famously dubbed it his “oven-ready deal” to “get Brexit done”. Even if that were correct – and of course the new trading relationship has not yet been determined – the withdrawal agreement, and thus Brexit itself, is now coming under renewed pressure, mainly because of the failure, so far, of the trade talks. The withdrawal agreement has the settled legal status of an international treaty, and is the “prerequisite”, according to the EU, if a harmonious future relationship. It has legal force in the way the political declaration which accompanied it did not. Neither party can alter the withdrawal agreement unilaterally.

Nonetheless, there are two ways in which the British are seeking to make the UK-EU withdrawal agreement work in Britain’s interests, and they are getting a little mixed up. One is mostly legitimate, the other mostly not.

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