Last week Theresa May unveiled her draft agreement with the European Union on the terms of Britain’s exit. The reaction was exactly as expected. Remainers despaired because the deal is so much worse than staying in the union — which is true, of course. Leavers despaired because the deal is Brexit in name only — which is also true. But that was bound to happen, right? Whatever variant of the earlier much-derided Chequers plan May had brought the EU to accept, the response from both sides would have been exactly the same.
Yes it would — yet this kneejerk reaction obscures a vital point. This deal, despite its resemblance to the Chequers plan, fundamentally subverts that earlier approach. This is no longer a flawed but defensible compromise. It’s a capitulation.
Remember that serious negotiations on the U.K.’s longer-term economic relationship with Europe haven’t actually started. Despite its inordinate length, the draft agreement is almost exclusively concerned with the terms of Britain’s departure: what it owes, what arrangements will apply during a 21-month transition period before Brexit comes into effect, the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and vice versa, and what steps will be taken during the transition and beyond to ensure that no hard border will be needed between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. A short section will be appended on the shape of the future economic partnership, but unlike the rest of the deal this will be non-binding and amount to little more than a statement of intent.
The so-called backstop arrangement for Northern Ireland has played a pivotal role throughout. One of Britain’s biggest mistakes from the beginning — that’s a high bar, heaven knows — was to let this issue assume such importance. By its nature, the backstop had to extend beyond the transition and connect the exit terms to the yet-to-be-determined future relationship. But the question was, how far would it shape and constrain that eventual outcome?