Following a summer of discontent within the Conservative Party over the Chequers proposal, it seemed that the Government was finally making progress in its negotiations with the EU as national leaders prepared to gather for the European Council meeting in Salzburg on 19-20 September.

In the weeks leading up to the summit it was reported that the EU heads of government would assume a more prominent role in the Autumn negotiations, with the UK hoping this would lead to a more flexible negotiating stance.

The aim would then be to agree the final text of the Withdrawal Agreement (setting out the UK’s ‘divorce bill’ as well as agreements on citizens’ rights and the Irish border) and a political declaration on the long-term UK-EU relationship at a special summit in mid-November, ahead of ratification by the UK and EU in advance of March 2019’s Article 50 deadline.

Irish border developments

Signs of a more conciliatory attitude from the EU on the contentious issue of the ‘backstop’ proposal to avoid a ‘hard Irish border’ were in evidence in the week leading up to Salzburg, with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier suggesting that goods could be checked away from the border with the Republic. The UK subsequently rejected the proposal as “not credible”, claiming that it would still introduce a customs border in the Irish Sea.

However, notwithstanding the disagreements which remain over the Irish border backstop, the manner in which the EU rejected the Chequers proposal at the Salzburg summit still caught many by surprise. In her own press conference following the summit, the PM insisted that Chequers was the only “serious and credible” proposition for achieving free movement of goods and avoiding a hard Irish border.

Speaking the following day, the Prime Minister called on the EU to set out in more detail the reasons for its current stance on both the Irish Border backstop and the Chequers proposal and reiterated that the Government believed that no deal with the EU was better than a bad deal.

However, with Chequers seemingly dead as a basis for the long-term UK-EU relationship, the PM is now coming under heightened pressure from within her own party to change course. Eurosceptics – including reportedly several in the Cabinet – are already increasing their calls for the PM to negotiate a Canada-style free trade agreement, with a smaller number of pro-EU MPs in the Conservative Party advocating long-term UK membership of both the Single Market and the Customs Union.

Blind Brexit

Even if the UK and EU are able to bridge their differences on the Withdrawal Agreement and the declaration on the future relationship before the end of the year, any deal still faces the formidable obstacle of being approved by the House of Commons in a ‘meaningful vote’. 

Anticipating a Parliamentary impasse, some senior Government figures have argued over recent weeks that the best approach would be to keep the political declaration on the future relationship as vague as possible, so not to jeopardise ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, and leave the details of the future relationship to be worked out during the implementation period.

However, this so-called ‘blind Brexit’ would also struggle to gain approval in the Commons, with MPs wary of committing to large payments to the EU through the Withdrawal Agreement in return for no guarantee of a substantial trade deal.

The fall-out from Salzburg, through exposing the distance between the UK and EU positions at this late stage in the negotiations, has increased the chances of ‘no deal’, a contingency which the Government has stepped-up preparation for since July’s Chequers summit.

On balance, the most likely outcome still appears to be that the UK and EU’s shared preference for a deal will result in a compromise on the Irish border being incorporated into the Withdrawal Agreement and a sufficiently ‘fudged’ political declaration being published before the end of the year.

If this transpires, the key question remains: will the disruption (even if only in the short-term) which ‘no deal’ would cause and the fear of either another general election or a fresh referendum which could stop Brexit altogether be enough to convince a sufficient number of potential Conservative rebels to support the PM’s deal?

If it is, then the path will be clear for the UK to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 with the Withdrawal Agreement in place and a twenty-one-month implementation period in which to flesh-out the detail of the long-term UK-EU relationship following the appointment of a new EU Commission. If, however, the PM’s deal falls at that crucial hurdle, the range of political possibilities opening up begins to expand significantly, with the associated uncertainty and sense of flux likely trumping anything seen in British politics in recent years.

Call to action

So what does all this mean for recreational boating? The RYA is continuing to engage with government and supportive Parliamentarians to ensure that the needs and concerns of the recreational boating community are heard amidst the background noise of the negotiations.

In particular, we are concerned about what the Brexit related bills may mean for border controls, time limits on duration of stay both for individuals and vessels wishing to visit Europe, the future ability of recreational craft and their contents to travel freely throughout Europe without customs restrictions, and the ability of RYA qualification-holders to work in EU territory.

Through our Brexit-related engagement and other ongoing initiatives, such as ‘Push the Boat Out’, a significant number of MPs are already aware of the importance of the recreational boating sector to their constituencies and the UK as a whole. However, there is still more we can do to spread the word.

RYA members and supporters may wish to contact their local MP to highlight the importance of safeguarding the future of the recreational boating sector in the Brexit negotiations. If they do, they will find a handy template letter, along with an MP briefing paper, and guidance on how to approach their local MP on the RYA Current Affairs hub at www.rya.org.uk/go/brexit

For more information about the RYA’s Brexit work or for further advice on how to contact local MPs, please contact the Cruising, Legal and Government Affairs team at brexit@rya.org.uk.