Whatever you make of Friday’s deal, it was a deal. Both sides signed up to a text. On that basis, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the European Commission was prepared to recommend to the European Council that “sufficient progress” had been made to move to phase two. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has draft conclusions in his pocket.
But the white smoke had barely escaped from the Brexit chimney before ministers started spinning it to their domestic audiences, reassuring Brexiteers that this was a deal they could leave with. The Irish might think the assurances meant one thing, but we thought it meant another. It only applied to a limited number of areas and equivalence would be OK, but not harmonisation.
The deal is not binding and nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. The UK has accepted commitments, but had not committed to commitments. The British public could change it all at another election.
These reinterpretations may have helped the Prime Minister achieve the remarkable show of unity that was on display in the Commons yesterday, but they have come at a price. Already the Irish Government has clarified what it thinks has been agreed. Now the European Parliament is adding a 'David Davis' clause to their view on the judgment of sufficient progress. And EU irritation may take the form of delays in trade negotiations.
For a taste of how this is playing on the continent, try Die Welt: “Keine 48 Stunden sollte der Burgfrieden halten, der den lang ersehnten ersten Brexit-Deal möglich gemacht hatte. Brexit-Minister David Davis brauchte nur wenige Sätze, um während eines Interviews mit der BBC das mühevoll aufgebaute Vertrauen zwischen Kontinent und Insel zu zerstören”
Of course that is inconveniently in German, so no one would read it here. But it says: “The truce that the long-sought after EU deal made possible did not even last 48 hours. Brexit Minister David Davis needed only a few sentences in a BBC interview to destroy the painfully built up trust between the Continent and the Island”.
There isn’t just a short-term cost. Every time UK ministers show that their word is worth nothing, they up the stakes for a UK trade deal. The Government wants a deal based on trust with recognition that the UK will meet EU standards by its own means. They don’t want the sort of intrusive jurisdiction the EU insists upon. Much of the row over citizens’ rights was on the question of whether the UK could be trusted to meet its commitments without extra oversight, and the final agreement was buttressed against arbitrary Home Office decisions.
The EU is already worried about a potential regulatory predator on its doorstep. The more the UK looks like it can’t be trusted, the quicker the vague language on upholding international standards (as it is in the Canada trade deal) will turn into demands for cast-iron commitments on a level playing field.
One of the takeaways of Friday’s deal should have been reassurance that there would be a transition and business could put its contingency planning back in the pending tray.
But the moment ministers cast doubt on their willingness to follow through with the deal, they dramatically discounted the value of that deal to business. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has pointed out that transition is a diminishing asset – the later it is agreed, the less valuable it is.
This applies to certainty too. The less certain a transition, the less valuable it is and ministers have managed to devalue their biggest prize from last week’s deal.
Theresa May badly needs to take back control of her own Cabinet.