Brexit weekly: 5 things

Six Days Left…

And so, the UK general election campaign rolls on. This week has seen the chipping away of the hefty poll lead once enjoyed by Theresa May’s team, who have now sought to rebrand themselves as the ‘Conservatives’. Mrs May herself has moved the conversation back onto Brexit, arguing that a vote for anybody but the Tories will encourage a ‘Coalition of Chaos’ who simply won’t be able to negotiate a ‘good’ Brexit deal.

What is a good Brexit deal, you may be tempted to ask? I’d suggest not asking, because Mrs May won’t be very clear in her answer. No deal is better than a bad deal is as far as she is likely to go, but that’s pretty meaningless too. In fairness to the Conservatives, it’s impossible to make campaign promises – that you’ll then be held to – which rely on the co-operation of 27 other countries. But Mrs May called this election on the one question of who’s best to lead Britain into Brexit negotiations: her or Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn? Given the erosion of Mrs May’s dull but competent image over the past two weeks, and the subsequent Tory decline in the polls, maybe voters are less sure about the answer to that question than they once were.

Ulster will be…ignored?

There was a seven-way general election debate in the UK this week, attended by the leader of every major party bar the one likeliest to be in Government – the Conservatives. Leaders from parties whose appeal is wholly centred outside of England (the SNP and Plaid Cymru) were also present, to give the debate a nice, inclusive feel.

Except for one region: Northern Ireland. And it is in Ulster where Brexit is likely to have the greatest impact on anywhere in the UK – it is the only part of the UK with a land border with an EU Member State after all. Trade, immigration, economic growth: all the big issues in play during Brexit negotiations are extra-important for and in Northern Ireland.

But nobody seems to care. No major UK politician, the people who will after all be negotiating our Brexit deal, seems to think about Northern Ireland for one minute, unless they’re talking about Jeremy Corbyn’s views on the province from 1995. If anything signifies the paucity of the debate in this election campaign about the actual, real-life consequences of Brexit, it is this.

Keeping the pain in Spain

Or maybe it is the report this week from the Nuffield Trust, a well-regarded British health think tank, who have totted up the cost to Britain’s NHS of pensioners returning to the UK from their homes in Spain, Portugal and other sunnier spots. £500m a year of extra expenditure was the final figure, enough to give the next Health Secretary a headache, and it could cost even more if migration rules meant that EU nationals working in health and social care sectors headed home.

That’s OK though surely – the extra £350m a week from the EU for the NHS that we’re due will easily be enough to cover it.

Getting on with it

Whilst the British are busy in pubs discussing YouGov’s latest polling methodology, the EU is quietly going about its Brexit-related business. It released its draft negotiating positions this week, with a focus on protecting the rights of EU citizens in the UK and finalising the amount Britain should pay to leave.

The first bit should be fairly straightforward, as every sensible UK politician has said they want this settled. The second bit will be trickier to say the least. Whatever figure the EU comes up with the UK Government will have to argue over, if only to show a suspicious press at home that they’re not just caving in to those tricksy foreigners.

No doubt Brussels have thought of this. Should they care though? Ultimately if the UK wants a decent trade deal then they must get the tiresome business of settling the terms of the divorce first. That, the new Prime Minister may conclude, is worth annoying the Daily Mail for.

Electioneering elsewhere

Finally, a lot of attention has been paid to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments in Munich this week that Europe couldn’t rely on Britain and the US anymore and that the continent had to “take our fate into own hands”. The UK Home Secretary raced to reassure continental governments that the UK wants a “deep and special partnership” to maintain European security and some, such as the FT’s Martin Wolf, took Mrs Merkel’s comments as chance to call the death of the US-led post-war order in the West.

But wait. Few world leaders make epochal comments about foreign policy and then, almost in the next minute, take a swig from a giant Bavarian beer glass. As many Brits often fail to notice, other countries have elections too and Germany is just starting its campaign and Mrs Merkel, was seeking to distance herself from the US (an electoral negative) by emphasising the EU (in Germany at least, an electoral positive).

Expect some similar unhelpful, even ‘tough’ (by Mrs Merkel’s mild standards) comments about Brexit in the coming weeks and months. But don’t read too much into them. Other leaders preen and posture for a home audience about foreign policy too, before being much more reasonable in a quiet meeting room.  We can probably even take anything written on the side of a German bus with a pinch of salt too.

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