Brexit Weekly: 5 things

Setting a date

280 days, 6,720 hours, 403,200 minutes, or 24,192,000 seconds: all of the above would earn you points in a pub quiz, as correct answers for the length of time between the EU referendum on 23rd June 2016 and the UK formally triggering Article 50 on 29th March 2017. Having overcome the relevant parliamentary hurdles, Theresa May announced the date for Article 50 this week, deliberately timed to fall after the Treaty of Rome anniversary celebrations and coming within a few days of her original deadline. In the following hours, Donald Tusk tweeted that he will present the draft Brexit guidelines to the remaining EU Member States within 48 hours, and the pound dropped by 0.1% – so we all know what to expect in the headlines in the last few days of next week.

Contacting the divorce lawyers

In return for Theresa May filing for divorce, the European Commission has penciled in when it will be meeting with its divorce lawyers. A summit of the remaining EU 27 will convene on 29th April, one month after the UK triggers Article 50, to agree how the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier will approach the process. Barnier confirmed in a speech to the European Committee of the Regions that he expects the rest of the family to rally around while the EU and the UK decide who will get custody of the dog and the good china, as “the unity of the 27” is a condition of the eventual success of the negotiations. Barnier emphasised that agreeing a deal before the UK sets off on its own will be in its best interests; and Donald Tusk said he wants the process to be as “painless as possible”. Hopefully that spirit will be maintained when the arguments over who owns the Titanic DVD start.

Spousal maintenance

Divorces are expensive affairs though, and it’s been reported that the Chancellor is being pressured not to let the UK’s bill for leaving the EU top more than £3 billion, despite suspicions that the EU could try for £50 billion. This will be an area of legitimate contention: on the one hand, the UK does not seem to have a legal obligation to make any payments; and on the other, remaining Member States could be significantly disadvantaged if they do not receive the payments to projects which could still benefit the UK after it has left. The resulting argument could also be another key test for Philip Hammond quite soon after his embarrassing reversal on National Insurance contributions, with the risk of Conservative backbenchers and Cabinet colleagues alike questioning his resolve if a final bill is closer to the EU’s preferred figure than the UK’s.

You can’t win

Little time rarely goes by without an accusation of bias against the BBC, and this week didn’t disappoint – a group of more than 70 MPs wrote to the BBC’s director general, Tony Hall, accusing the broadcaster of biased Brexit coverage. Signed primarily by Conservatives but with a smattering of Labour Brexiteers, the authors argued that the positive economic picture since last June has not been presented accurately, with the BBC “unable to break out of pre-referendum pessimism and accept new facts.” The Beeb came back fighting by stating that its job is “to report, to host the argument and to interrogate the participants”, and Nick Robinson posted a passive aggressive tweet for good measure.

The Lib Dems are still fighting

And finally, even though Parliament has given its final say on whether a “meaningful vote” will be sought on the final Brexit T&Cs, Tim Farron has been back for another pop. The Liberal Democrat leader moved a Ten Minute Rule Bill this week to hold another referendum on the proposed terms for the UK to leave the EU, arguing that “democracy did not end at 10pm on 23 June last year”. Although his efforts will almost certainly not result in another referendum, it is politically smart for the Lib Dems to continue to push for this to appeal to their growing base of Remain-leaning supporters. Rachel Sylvester’s piece in the Times put an interesting slant on how the Lib Dems “have the advantage of clarity on their side over Europe” which could fuel further gains for them. The Second Reading of Tim Farron’s Bill on 12th May might be inconsequential, but the party’s wider Brexit activities aren’t.