Cautious optimism in Brussels over draft Brexit agreement

Deal fulfils the EU’s desire to maintain strong ties with the UK while allaying fears of a disruptive divorce

European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier meets European Council President Donald Tusk to hand over the Brexit draft text in Brussels, Belgium, November 15, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
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It was the conditional tone of a statement by Donald Tusk announcing a European summit later this month that betrayed the uncertainty dogging Brussels over a Brexit deal.

Barring “extraordinary” developments, declared Mr Tusk, the crux meeting would take place on November 25.

Yet while ratification on both sides remains uncertain, Brussels-based observers have welcomed an accord. From their vantage, it fulfils the EU’s desire to maintain strong ties with the UK and placates fears of a disruptive divorce.

"The most important thing at this stage was to agree on a deal," Guntram Wolff, head of the economic think-tank Bruegel told The National. "A no-deal scenario would have been bad for Northern Ireland as well as for the rest of the EU."

The vociferous attacks on the compromise are seen as shocking by people like Mr Wolff, who dismissed warnings the pact would make Britain a “slave state” or a “vassal” of the EU. “I find this an outrageous statement and the UK should know better what a 'slave state' is,” he said. “It is true that in the transition period the UK will have to be a rule-taker, but after that regulatory autonomy will be largely restored.”

Far from bolstering confidence in the EU, the announcement has done little to quell concerns felt on the streets around the bloc’s hulking glass headquarters.

Pharmacist Sabah N'Ciri said the foundations of the project remained in question. "It is difficult to comprehend the EU policies, despite the impact these have on the life of everyday people in many ways, in agriculture and so on," she said. "The UK is quitting the boat and that for sure is a worrying sign."


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Pieter Cleppe, head of the Open Europe think-tank in Brussels, pointed out London was not the only party to have made concessions to achieve a deal.

“During the temporary period in which Britain will be in a common customs regime with the EU, British producers will enjoy access to the common customs union without necessarily also having to apply all the internal market rules of the EU,” he said.

While the EU is certainly seeking to “keep the UK in its orbit”, said Larissa Brunner, policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, London's willingness to compromise is also driven by fears of a hard border in Northern Ireland.

According to Ms Brunner, the economic repercussions of a "no deal" Brexit are not to be underestimated. Some predictions had the pound dropping 5 per cent if the deal failed to pass cabinet scrutiny and falling an additional 15 per cent in a no-deal scenario.

“Brexit has always been about emotion,” Ms Brunner said. “But once the exit is formalised, the debate within the UK could change how much disruption Brexit could really cause.”

Even if the impasse is resolved, the EU faces other challenges that could also tear it apart.

Standing by the 47-metre tall column commemorating Belgium's first constitution in 1830, Xenia Yocirami, a 24-year-old Greek national, welcomed the news of the agreement but pointed to other ongoing battles.

"The issue is not only a Brexit, it's migration as well," she said, adding that on that front the EU had yet to find a solution.