A brewing leadership challenge and the prospect of more ministerial resignations has kept the coverage of the slow-moving Brexit trainwreck focused squarely on the 568-page draft Brexit treaty that UK Prime Minister Theresa May is desperately struggling to ram down the throats of Tory Brexiteers. Much of this struggle has focused on what many believe are too-vague parameters surrounding the mechanism for the UK to exit the EU customs union if the transition period is extended, or the trade 'backstop' triggered, should negotiations over a future UK-EU trade deal drag on past the December 2020 transition period deadline.
But the UK isn't the only party that has reservations about the final deal, which must not only pass muster in Westminster, but also meet approval from all 27 European Union governments. And in a report published Friday morning, Buzzfeed reminded the world that this outcome - taken as a given - isn't entirely assured.
Though European capitals largely welcomed the draft Brexit deal after more than a year of contentious negotiations, notes seen by Buzzfeed suggests that some capitals swallowed the deal only after objecting to certain aspects. These could still prove unpopular when as the deal is being finalized, or when it eventually comes up for a round of votes.
According to the notes, various European capitals raised questions about the treatment of common fisheries, the possibility of extending the Brexit transition period and how social security systems would be coordinated, among others.
The element of the deal that met perhaps the most resistance from Europe, as capitals questioned the wisdom of granting the UK access to the single market during the transition without Britain reciprocating access to its water.
But the hottest issue for many governments is the lack of an agreement on fishing rights in UK waters. British negotiators have demanded that the issue be excluded from the backstop and the withdrawal agreement, committing only for it to be part of negotiations about the future.
A number of EU governments feel that a promise to negotiate about it doesn’t provide the required legal clout, the notes reveal.
During Thursday’s working group, French representatives noted that granting the UK access to the single market through the backstop without Britain reciprocating access to its waters in return was a problem for France.
Spain, Belgium, Ireland, Portugal, and Denmark also raised similar concerns, asking for greater clarity on how the British carveout for fish would work in practice, and how their respective industries would be protected should the backstop arrangements kick-in.
The Commission explained that the July 2020 date — set out in the withdrawal agreement as the moment to take stock of the status of trade talks — was important as it was when the member states themselves would start discussing future fishing quotas.
Unfortunately for May, she has little wiggle room on her end. Given that her grip on power is already tenuous, May can't afford to lose the support of the 13 Scottish Tories, including Scottish secretary David Mundell, who signed a letter to the prime minister ahead of Wednesday’s cabinet meeting threatening to walk if May didn't promise to withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy - which gives EU fishermen access to UK waters under a quota system - immediately.
The idea that fishery policy could make or break a Brexit deal might seem ridiculous to outsiders. But like they say: Sometimes the goings on in Westminster are indistinguishable from an episode of "The Thick of It".