Brexit weekly: 5 things

Barrow in Furnace

Starting this week with Sir Ivan Rogers spectacularly quitting his post as head of the UK Permanent Representation to the EU (effectively the UK Ambassador to the EU).

Sir Ivan’s departure was unexpected; the first the Government knew about it was when his all-staff email popped up in their inboxes. Sir Ivan’s parting message was also, in civil service terms, blunt in the extreme. He criticised the Government’s “muddled thinking” and there were not particularly coded references to Ministers being unable to take advice they did not want to hear.

What was the reaction of many Brexiteers to Sir Ivan’s departure? Iain Duncan Smith claimed that Ministers couldn’t trust Sir Ivan (after leaked stories in December about Sir Ivan’s warnings on how long it may take to negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal) and others, such as Dominic Raab, simply painted Sir Ivan as a not-so-closet Europhile whose heart wasn’t in it.

Given this, it was perhaps odd to see (mostly) these same figures tripping over themselves to welcome Sir Tim Barrow as Sir Ivan’s hastily-appointed replacement. Sir Tim is another career civil servant, albeit one from the Foreign Office instead of the Treasury, and who served as Ambassador to Moscow in the early-90s. How this makes him particularly different to Sir Ivan is unclear at this stage, but Brexiteers such as David Davis, Boris Johnson and Mr Raab again were fulsome in their praise of him.

The Government was right to act fast. By doing so (and by appointing another career civil service) it reaffirmed the neutrality of a body of men and women historically very protective of their impartiality. The quick reaction also showed that the Government was in charge, not figures such as Mr Duncan Smith. And, more to the point, the appointment gave Sir Tim some chance to assess the size of the job before Article 50 is triggered, supposedly by the end of March.

Sir Tim is in a powerful position. Appointed by this Government, welcomed by leading Brexiteers, and – given his stint in Moscow – unlikely to be intimidated easily, he will be able to bluntly, if privately, speak truth to power before and during the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

Pick Your Own

A key plank of the Vote Leave campaign was that quitting the EU meant that the UK would be able to pick and choose the high-skilled immigration that we need.  But included in that appears to be the ability to pick asparagus, or so Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom told a farming conference this week.

The leading Brexiteer promised nothing, but said she’d heard “loud and clear” farmers’ concerns over access to labour and was speaking to the Home Office about what the UK Government could do around relaxing, for seasonal farm workers, potentially tight future immigration rules. Mrs Leadsom also spoke about the opportunities for UK farming, freed from the bureaucratic constraints imposed by Brussels about what crops they could plant and what exactly is a hedge.

Farmers will also note, however, that the Government only promised to match the £3bn of subsidies Brussels send to the UK each year until 2020. Similarly, any promise the UK makes on preserving immigration for agricultural is only good so long as other Member States agree to it. It is not clear why the other EU27 would accept restrictions on their citizens living and working in the UK aside from some tens of thousands allowed in for seasonal work.

But this is Mrs Leadsom’s dilemma to resolve and promise to deliver. A clever choice for a tricky job by her one-time leadership rival, Theresa May.

I’ve heard you’re Irish now?

2016 saw soaring number of applications from mainland Britain (65,000) and Northern Ireland (68,000) for Irish passports– a 40% rise on the previous year.

It’s not hard to see why. Once Britain leaves the EU there may be laxer immigration rules for Irish citizens than citizens from other Member States (freedom of movement between the two countries long pre-dates their EU memberships) and Ireland is, in any case, an increasingly attractive place to live and work. It is booming again after the catastrophe of the late 2000s and is in a prime position to tempt away UK-based businesses put off by the uncertainty of Brexit. It’s also barely an hour’s flight from London – or just a short drive if you happen to live in the North.

On this subject, former Business Secretary Sir Vince Cable this week casually – at the end of a long article about immigration – suggested the “permeability of the Irish border” post Brexit “must lead to a united Ireland in Europe”. Sir Vince put his finger on one of the biggest, but least discussed problems with Brexit: the Irish border. There is no good solution: either controls on immigration from the Republic of Ireland (possible, but economically damaging and difficult to police in the North); a fixed border between North and South (economically disastrous at best, the collapse of the peace process at worst); no fixed border between North and South and controls on movement from the island of Ireland (politically impossible), no border and no controls (a huge backdoor to Britain) or some form of control in Dublin (would the Irish Government accept this, even in exchange for a large payment?).

A big problem for Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers – who just happens to have been another leading Brexiteer.

Year ahead: France

As we begin 2017, we’re also taking a brief look at some of the other elections taking place across the EU – and how these may affect the Brexit process.

First to France, where Presidential elections are slowly approaching. The first round of the presidential election will be held on 23rd April 2017. Should no candidate win an outright majority, which is very likely, a run-off between the top two will be held on 7th May 2017.

After the centre-right Republicans’ primary held last November, former Prime Minister François Fillon emerged as the party’s nominee, beating the moderate Alain Juppé by a wide margin.

The second biggest political party, the Socialist Party, will hold a presidential primary this month. Seven candidates will confront each other during four TV debates: the former prime minister Manuel Valls faces his biggest rival leftist firebrand Arnaud Montebourg, with five others running way behind. Perhaps unsurprisingly the deeply unpopular Socialist incumbent President François Hollande decided not to run.

So far a standard contest between left and right. But a spectre is haunting Europe, and her name is Marine Le Pen. The leader of the far-right National Front is leading the polls in the race for the Elysee (together with Francois Fillon) and, though she is unlikely to win the election, she may well end up in the second round. And who really wants to predict what will happen after the year we have had?

But things are more complicated by the emergence of others from across the political spectrum are hoping to raise a credible challenge. On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is making good progress and is supported by the still relatively powerful Communist Party. And in the centre, Emmanuel Macron presents himself as the young, credible and distinctly Blairite alternative. Effectively the French Presidential election will involve more or less credible candidates from the far left, left, centre, right and far-right.

In truth, all of these candidates bar Mr Mélenchon and Ms Le Pen will probably adopt similar lines when it comes to the Brexit negotiations – but it is Ms Le Pen that other European leaders fear. To have an arch Eurosceptic (even if she has toned down her Euroscepticism in recent months) in charge of one of the key EU Member States would be a much, much bigger problem for the EU itself than Brexit.

We should know by the day after the French election – 8th May, or the day that the Second World War ended in Europe 77 years ago. You have to admire the French sense of irony.

Mr Davis’s Inbox

Finally, Ministers have returned to work this week, no doubt looking forward to what will be an interesting 2017. We’ve taken a look at what is likely to be in the inbox of all our returning politicians and analysed the priorities and problems that may lie ahead. Read in full here with our analysis of the Brexit Secretary, David Davis’s, to-do list here.