Brexit weekly: 5 things

It’s war?

When Theresa May invited Donald Tusk to Downing Street, she probably didn’t think she would be calming tensions over Gibraltar. Nor would she have expected one of her predecessors as Conservative Party leader, Lord Howard, suggesting the UK could go as far declaring war on Spain, should the latter use Brexit negotiations to demand co-sovereignty of the island.

When meeting Mr Tusk, Mrs May was adamant the UK wouldn’t enter into any discussion over sovereignty without the consent of Gibraltarians. The need to diffuse tensions following the publication of EU negotiating deadlines containing a clause stating no agreement on the EU’s future relationship with the UK will apply to Gibraltar without the consent of Spain.

Surveys of Gibraltarians consistently show a desire to remain part of the UK, despite 96 percent of the population voting to stay in the EU. While tensions over sovereignty have been cooled for the time being, expect the matter to come to the fore again during the protracted negotiations – although in the early pre-negotiation stages the rhetoric and tough talk are to be expected.

Morgan: No ‘hard’ Brexit

Former Cabinet Minister Nicky Morgan launched Open Britain’s new campaign this week, insisting the UK must not leave the EU under World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs. Mrs Morgan claimed that, along with other MPs across the political spectrum, that, “this most extreme form of Brexit is being talked about with increasing fervour by those who favour a fundamental rupture with Europe.”

A newly published pamphlet for Open Britain has highlighted the concerns of a range of economists and lawyers of the negative impact leaving the EU on WTO terms. Alan Winters, Professor of Economics at Sussex University, said leaving the EU with no deal in place would mean “around half of all UK exports and imports would become subject to tariffs, which would be particularly problematic on cars and high on agricultural products.”

The newly launched Open Britain campaign is highly unlikely to prompt any obvious form of fundamental rethink within Whitehall over the UK’s negotiating position. But no doubt the Government, whilst publicly appeasing the more voluble pro-Brexiteers, is aware of the dangers of completely ignoring unhappy pro-Europeans. The intervention of Nicky Morgan, a senior Conservative backbencher, highlights the difficulties Theresa May is likely to face within her own ranks. With the support of centrists in the Labour Party – and of course the Lib Dems – these rebels may well vote against a final deal that doesn’t avoid a hard Brexit, potentially presenting the Prime Minister with significant parliamentary difficulties.

Could May go for a softer Brexit?

Given the above, is it a coincidence that, though Brexiteers might have ended last week celebrating the triggering of Article 50, this week has seen signs of a softened stance to negotiations by Theresa May.

Mrs May had previously insisted the UK would both finalise separation from the EU and agree a new trade deal within two years, with the EU adamant the UK would only be able to enter into a new trade deal once it’s formally left the bloc. Questioned on the subject during a visit to Jordan earlier this week, Mrs May did not refute the EU position.

Other signs of a softened stance have begun to materialise. While previous comments about migration have stressed the UK’s intention to “take back control” post-Brexit, Mrs May this week indicated there will be a transition period after the conclusion of the process, during which businesses and government can adjust to the new reality.

The Prime Minister’s remarks, while perhaps not endearing her to committed Brexiteers, have been met with some optimism from businesses advocating for a transitional period. The great intangible is whether Mrs May can convince Conservative advocates of ‘leave’ of the need for such a transition.

Looking forward to a tough Brexit

To Strasbourg next, where the European Parliament this week overwhelmingly backed a non-binding resolution favouring a tough negotiating stance towards the British government.

MEPs passed the resolution by 516 votes to 133, with 50 abstentions. The Parliament will have no formal role in shaping the Brexit talks, with negotiations led by the EU Commission. But its views matter nonetheless, because it will have a vote on the final Brexit deal.

What’s particularly interesting is the resolution notes the Parliament would prohibit the UK from pleading for a better deal if it ever tried to return to the EU, and even the raft of measures offered to David Cameron last year would be ruled out.

I’m a Select Committee member. Get me out of here!

Dissention amongst the ranks of the Brexit Select Committee this week, as pro-Brexit members refused to endorse a newly published Committee report.

The report denounced government assertions that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” claiming the position to be unsubstantiated and challenging Whitehall over its analysis of the impact of crashing out of the EU under WTO trading terms.

The report prompted heated debate among Committee members, several of whom walked out of the meeting, describing the report as “relentlessly negative.” While the publication again highlights big questions over the preparations for an unsuccessful negotiation, it also underlines the continuing and deep divisions within the corridors of Westminster.

For more information about Brexit, the negotiators and its impact, please visit Project Brexit.