In a momentous moment of unity in Brussels, the 27 national European Union ministers backed the draft of the terms of Britain's exit from the bloc. At least that is what the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and Austria's EU minister, Gernot Blümel, have stated.
From the EU's standpoint, the only question still open is a possible extension of the transition phase. The current transitional period, during which the bloc's future cooperation with the UK must be finally negotiated, ends in December 2020.
At the insistence from Westminster, a once-off extension is now on the cards. By the end of the week, both the EU and the UK want there to be a concrete date for the exit. British Prime Minister Theresa May has proposed a deadline as late as the general election scheduled for 2022.
The date of the exit is a contentious issue in British domestic politics. As long as the transition period continues, everything remains as is. If no deal has been struck by the end of the transition period, an emergency regulation, the so-called "backstop," will take effect. The backstop agreement is a stipulation to ensure that there would be no "hard" border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.
This would simply be achieved by keeping the UK and Northern Ireland in a permanent customs union with the EU. But such a compromise is like a red rag to a bull for the Brexit hard-liners among May's Conservative party. That's because a customs union means that the UK could not completely extricate itself from the EU and would not have the liberty to strike up independent trade agreements with the United States, India or China. The promise to "take back control" would not be kept.
Avoid backstop with the customs union
The "backstop" arrangement should never come to pass because thorough cooperation must be negotiated beforehand. This would also provide clear regulation on the border issue between Northern Ireland and Ireland. At least that's what May, who is under heavy pressure, has promised again in recent interviews. To underpin this promise, she intends to return to Brussels to personally negotiate the exact wording of the "political declaration."