Talks over the future trade and economic relationship between the UK and the European Union could begin within weeks if the withdrawal agreement is approved by parliament, it has been revealed.
The outline political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the UK and the EU, published on Wednesday alongside the withdrawal agreement, indicated talks would begin before the UK leaves the bloc next year.
The withdrawal deal included provisions for the entire UK to remain in a customs union with the EU, as a way of avoiding a hard Irish border while a long-term trade deal is agreed. This backstop plan will mean Northern Ireland will also have to stay in parts of the EU single market, thereby tying it closer to Brussels than the rest of the country, although prime minister Theresa May has said that the agreement on a long-term trade deal would mean this would never be used.
However, the draft agreement led to four ministerial resignations, including two cabinet ministers.
Brexit secretary Dominic Raab and work and pensions secretary Esther McVey stepped down, saying that they could not support the deal. The other ministerial resignations were Shailesh Vara, a junior Northern Ireland minister, and Suella Braverman, a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union.
Two ministerial aides – Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Education; and Ranil Jayawardena, PPS at the Ministry of Justice – have also resigned.
The draft agreement does allow the UK to extend the post-Brexit implementation period – which is due to run until the end of 2020 – on a one-off basis, but the 585-page document does not specify how long the extention might last.
May said there would be further talks to develop the declaration on the future relationship ahead of a vote on the withdrawal plan.
The draft document states that “following the conclusion of the withdrawal agreement between the parties but prior to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the union, the parties will engage in preparatory organisational work with the aim of enabling rapid commencement of negotiations”.
The document sets out aspirations for the future relationship, covering the economic, security and institutional arrangements for the deal.
The formal negotiation process for these arrangements will begin “as soon as possible after the entry into force of the withdrawal agreement, using best endeavours to ensure the necessary steps are taken so that the future relationship can take effect by the end of 2020”.
The intention would be to develop a clear programme to deliver the deal, including regular review points for negotiators at which they will report publicly on progress, including high level meetings at least every six months.
A spokesman for the Department for International Trade told CSW that DExEU would continue to lead the talks with the EU.
May said that she would appoint replacements for the ministers who had resigned, including at cabinet level, shortly.