December 2020 EU and UK agree on a Brexit transition period

The 21-month accord eases worries but leaves plenty of issues unresolved, including the "hardness" of the Irish border.
The border between Mr. Barnier, left, and Mr. Davis.

The European Union and the United Kingdom on Monday agreed to a 21-month transition period to ease the UK’s March 2019 exit from the union. The deal ensures that very little will change until December 2020, with the UK continuing financial contributions to the EU in exchange for access to the common market.

This latest understanding is a “decisive step,” chief EU negotiator Michael Barnier said, warning that many questions remain unanswered. “A decisive step is still just a step. We’re not at the end of the road.” The agreement eases a growing sense of panic that the UK isn’t prepared for leaving the union and gives negotiators more time to focus on a number of other issues in hopes of completing a final agreement.

The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland remains unresolved, though the accord includes a backstop that would allow the north to be subject to the same EU laws post-Brexit as Ireland, in order to avoid dividing the island. The UK may also negotiate trade deals during the transition, with fishing agreements between the EU and the UK high on the list.

Too hard for many to ignore.

The deal also makes Brexit-related bookkeeping easier, since the current EU budget runs through 2020 and finance ministers are currently hammering out the next budget – a budget that by default doesn’t include the UK. It also clarified that the 4.5 million EU citizens now in Britain and 1.2 million UK citizens within the EU will be able to remain during the transition under the same rules they do today.

“British citizens and European citizens of the 27 who arrive during the transition period will receive the same rights and guarantees as those who arrived before the day of Brexit,” Mr. Barnier said during a press conference.

The transition period is expected to be approved by governments of both the UK and the EU in the coming days and will become part of a broader Brexit agreement, which is expected to be completed by October. The transition period will only go into effect if the latter agreement is passed. "The deal today should give us confidence that a good deal for the UK and EU is closer than ever before,” chief UK negotiator David Davis said.

Andrew Bulkeley is an editor in Berlin for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]