Brexit weekly: 5 things

Migrating to the new reality

Brexit Minister David Jones was in the spotlight this week, appearing before the House of Lords EU Select Committee, and revealing that a unilateral Government guarantee of EU citizens’ right to remain in the UK “is certainly something that is being considered.”

It was an interesting, albeit not entirely unexpected reply to Committee questioning from the Brexit Minister. During the Conservative leadership election last year, Theresa May was pressed by MPs and activists to reassure EU nationals living in the UK that their rights would be protected and they wouldn’t lose their residency post-Brexit. But the Prime Minister was reluctant to make sure a commitment without reciprocation from EU Member States – a perspective further tempered by the insistence of European leaders that no formal negotiations could take place before Article 50 is triggered.

In a busy week for Mr Jones, he also confirmed (in response to a written question from Douglas Carswell) that the Home Office is working to consider the options as to how EU migration might work. Whatever the outcome of that body of work, the Government will be hoping the migration question can be quickly resolved when formal negotiations begin.

A surcharge? Downing Street says no …

Downing Street was quick to distance itself this week from one of the options open to the Home Office, pouring cold water on suggestions by Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill that the UK could introduce a £1,000 a year surcharge on employers for every skilled worker they bring into the UK.

Under changes to be introduced from April 2017, companies hiring migrants from outside the EU under the Tier 2 immigration route will be required to pay £1,000 per year for every employee whose work visa they sponsor. Mr Goodwill told the House of Lords EU Committee it had been suggested to the Government that the same system could apply to companies looking to employ workers from EU Member States post-Brexit, which would allow the country to retain the economic benefits of immigration but in a more controlled way than at present.

The suggestion was dismissed out of hand by business groups including the CBI, while the EU Parliament’s chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt described the suggestion as “shocking.” Downing Street swiftly disavowed the option, claiming it wasn’t under serious consideration and that Mr Goodwill’s remarks had been spun out of context.

The Immigration Minister also said the Government was considering a seasonal migration scheme covering the likes of agricultural workers to enter the UK from the EU for a short period of time. But the Downing Street response showed, if any reminder were needed, how emotive the migration issue will be and how it will be at the forefront of negotiations when Article 50 is triggered in March.

European Parliament presidential election picks up pace

Following the decision of arch-federalist and Social Democrat MEP Martin Shulz to seek election to the Bundestag in the forthcoming German parliamentary election, POLITICO sponsored a debate on Wednesday night between the leading candidates to take over as president of the European Parliament – a largely ceremonial role but one that carries significance given that any Brexit deal must be approved by MEPs as well as the Commission and Member States.

The contest is shaping up to be unusual in that, while such positions are normally agreed in advance through negotiation and backroom deals by MEPs and Member States, supporters of the two leading candidates – Antonio Tajani from the centre-right European People’s Party, and Gianni Pittella from the left-wing Socialists & Democrats – have been attacking one another on ideological grounds. Udo Bullman, a German MEP, attacked Tajani as the “president of austerity” and a dogmatic member of the “neoliberal family”, while Manfred Weber from the EPP accused Pittella and Guy Verhofstadt, the candidate of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats group, of trying to influence the outcome by pandering to the votes of nationalist and eurosceptic MEPs.

The idea of an unpredictable election conducted by secret ballot has caused disquiet, with French MEP Sylvie Goulard expressing alarm that, in a crowded field, the president could be elected on a plurality rather than an overall majority of MEPs, and calling for the contest to be postponed so the two main political groups can agree a compromise candidate.

MEPs will vote next week and it is expected that it may take up to four rounds before a new president is agreed.

Disquiet in the devolved assemblies

Nicola Sturgeon’s proposal to retain privileged access to the single market for Scotland was undermined this week when the head of the Norwegian parliament’s EFTA and EEA delegation, Svein Roald Hansen, said that Scotland would only be able to negotiate such an agreement as an independent country.

The Scottish First Minister had suggested that Scotland could join the European Free Trade Association and European Economic Area in its own right, even as part of the UK. However, Roald Hansen said this was “impossible” due to Article 56 of the EFTA Convention, which states that only nation states can become members. His stance was echoed by Øyvind Halleraker from the Norwegian parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Norway’s intervention is significant since any agreement to allow Scotland to secure EFTA membership would require the consent of all four EFTA members, as well as agreement from EU Member States for Scotland to be part of the EEA.

Also this week, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Martin McGuinness stepped down in protest at First Minister Arlene Foster’s handling of a scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme – the culmination of months of discontent with Foster’s flinty leadership style. Under the terms of the Good Friday power sharing agreement, McGuinness’s departure will result in fresh Assembly elections.

Given the fact that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU despite the Brexit stance of the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein is hopeful of improving its position in the Assembly and possibly even emerging as the largest party. However, there has been concern that with the province once again convulsed by political uncertainty, there will be no functioning Executive for the UK Government to consult prior to triggering Article 50.

The SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson asked at Prime Minister’s Questions whether the Government would delay Article 50 until a new Executive had been formed. However, the request received short shrift with Mrs May stating that the political crisis in Northern Ireland could not be allowed to frustrate the progress of Brexit negotiations.

Britain sees Brexit bounce

Finally this week, the UK saw a raft of good news economic stories.

Despite Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary previously warning that Brexit could “halt flights between the UK and Europe”, the budget airline announced that it would be launching 13 new routes from London Stansted in 2017, while luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce reiterated its pledge to retain its headquarters in the UK after posting its second highest volume of sales in more than a century. A survey of 1,300 manufacturing firms found that 70% expect to see growth over the next 12 months.

Speaking to the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, Bank of England governor Mark Carney, criticised by eurosceptic MPs for what were seen as overly-partisan predictions of economic disaster during the referendum campaign, admitted that Brexit was no longer the biggest risk to the UK’s economy and that he expected the bank to revise its forecasts upwards.