With less than six months remaining before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, negotiators are scrambling to reach agreement on the legal terms of Britain's exit, plus a declaration establishing their future trade, security and military ties. Once a withdrawal agreement is signed, it would trigger a 21-month transition period that would give households and companies time to prepare for the effects of the split. But political turbulence in the United Kingdom could make it difficult to strike a deal before the March 29 Brexit date.
Negotiators from the European Union and the United Kingdom on Oct. 14 reached a provisional deal on a withdrawal agreement establishing the legal terms of the British departure from the bloc. But just a few hours later, the preliminary deal fell apart when Dominic Raab, the British government's Brexit secretary, pronounced that it would not pass political muster in London. Negotiators canceled follow-up meetings, leaving the next stage of talks in the hands of British Prime Minister Theresa May and her EU counterparts, who will meet Oct. 17-18 to try to get negotiations back on track.
Sunday's events show that a withdrawal agreement could well be within reach. But they also demonstrate that even if the technocrats in Brussels can make a deal, it would still be at risk for rejection by the Conservative Party-led British government, its Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) partners or the British Parliament. The main stumbling block continues to be the eventual status of Northern Ireland. In March, the European Union and the United Kingdom agreed on the so-called "Irish backstop," saying that in the absence of a better alternative to maintain the open border between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland after Brexit, the province would remain in the EU customs union and would follow single-market rules. But under pressure from Northern Ireland's DUP, which opposes any agreement that would grant any special status to the province and eventually lead to border controls at the Irish Sea, London later rescinded the option.
The British government then suggested instead that the whole of the United Kingdom could remain in the customs union for a limited period; that point was apparently included in the provisional deal. But the length of time that the United Kingdom would remain in the customs union has become a sticking point. Hard-line Brexiteers want any deal with the United Kingdom staying in the customs union to have an expiration date, out of fear that an indefinite status could leave Britain in limbo. But the European Union argues that the United Kingdom should remain in the customs union for as long as it takes for the Irish issue to be solved. Brussels would consider allowing the United Kingdom to limit its time in the customs union, but only if it receives assurances that Northern Ireland would remain in the union if the period expires without a solution to the border dilemma. London rejects this demand, and on Oct. 15, May accused the European Union of trying to impose "a backstop to the backstop."
To further complicate the situation, negotiators have made little progress on the agreement outlining the future EU-UK relationship. Last week, the European Union said it was willing to discuss a comprehensive agreement including trade, security and military ties. But Brussels believes that these negotiations should take place only after a deal is struck on the withdrawal agreement. London, for its part, argues that it cannot sign such an greement until it knows what its future EU ties will look like. If May can break the impasse this week, a summit to complete the withdrawal agreement would likely be scheduled for Nov. 17-18. But if not, EU officials have suggested they could use the summit to discuss plans for a no-deal scenario, in which a British withdrawal occurs without any agreements in place.