To great fanfare on Christmas Eve, the European Commission and UK Government announced that they had finalised a last-minute trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) to avert a no-deal scenario just days later. Reaching this last-minute agreement was only possible after the European Parliament agreed to postpone its legal scrutiny and ratification into the new year, paving the way for a provisional application of the TCA.
The deal, which is “unprecedented in its scope” according to the Chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, David McAllister, governs mainly the United Kingdom’s post-Brexit trading relationship with the European Union. It also sets the framework on social standards, tackling climate change, research, as well as energy and fisheries.
Critically, after months of wrangling, the TCA also governs the post-Brexit role of and framework for trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. On the initiative of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the EU and UK Government agreed that, in line with the Withdrawal Agreement’s Northern Ireland protocol, the province will remain a legal entity of the United Kingdom, but also fall under the jurisdiction of the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union for all aspects of trade. Implemented through a customs boarder in the Irish sea, the province’s status requires formal checks and paperwork on any goods imported from the Great Britain.
While the TCA’s negotiators agreed on a 3-month implementation period to allow traders get used to and implement the required procedures, in a stunning déjà vu of breaking an international agreement, the UK Government announced in early March that it intended to unilaterally extend the implementation period until 1 October.
With the announcement coming mere hours before the European Parliament’s joint International Trade and Foreign Affairs Committees were due to vote on progressing the TCA to a full ratification vote, unsurprisingly the European Parliament chose to cancel and “indefinitely postpone” the vote until the UK provided more clarity and/or rescind its proposal.
Following a formal extension to the provisional application until 30 April, Commission Vice-President Šefčovič launching an infringement proceeding, and scrutiny seemingly at a stillstand in the European Parliament, with only two weeks remaining until the ratification deadline, the Parliament’s joint Committee this week finally voted to adopt its rapporteurs’ report on the agreement by 108 votes in favour, one against and four abstentions.
Yet, notwithstanding the apparent progress made at Committee stage, it remains unclear whether or when MEPs will actually get to vote on the TCA’s ratification after the institution’s Conference on Presidents decided on Tuesday (13 April) to once again refused to set a definitive date. Instead, leading MEPs argue that, in order to allow for a ratification vote to be scheduled, it is for Whitehall to provide concrete reassurances that it will stick to it international commitments and fully implement all provisions of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Despite reassurances by Parliament President David Sassoli that “there will be no extensions” past the current deadline, some developments this week give reason for cautious optimism that yet another no-deal, cliff-edge scenario on 30 April can be averted. On the one hand, the Commission has granting the UK Government a monthlong extension for its legal response to the launch of the infringement procedure, while, on the other hand, Vice-President Šefčovič and David Frost this week met for re-intensified talks on overcoming the trading issues across the Irish sea, particularly in the area of livestock and agricultural goods.