Brexit weekly: 5 things

Ready, set, go!

On Monday, nearly a year after the UK’s referendum on EU membership, UK Brexit Secretary David Davis and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier launched the negotiations on the UK’s exit from the EU. The aim of the opening round of talks was to come to an agreement on the timeline, structure and priorities of the negotiations. In other words, turning chaos into order, confusion into clarity. Ambitious, right?

The lead negotiators have agreed to allocate a week a month for face to face meetings (or tête-à-têtes, as Frenchman Barnier would say), with the remaining time used to exchange positions and proposals. Working groups were also established for the first phase of the talks and will discuss specific issues like citizens’ rights, the divorce bill and “other separation issues” – with the working groups formed of civil servants from both sides. Bargaining rounds in these working groups will also take place once a month.

While the negotiators described the initial talks as productive and both emphasised that they would take a constructive approach to ensure a fair deal for both sides, initial talks saw what looks to be very much a significant British defeat. After months having put their heads in the sand and claiming they could agree both future relationship and divorce talks, the UK has now agreed to postpone trade talks until after “significant progress” is made with exit talks – as the EU wanted and as was always likely. This concession reflects a weak UK negotiating position, with the EU seemingly unified in its approach.

Is no deal better than a bad deal?

Talking about Brexit negotiations, over the past six months Theresa May has consistently repeated that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. The statement has repeatedly raised the eyebrows (and hackles) of many across the political spectrum – including some within Mrs May’s own party – who question the economic impact of seeing trading relations going back to World Trade Organisation terms.

But there’s a separate deal the Prime Minister is anxious to pursue.

Two weeks after the UK general election, the Conservative Party is still struggling to strike a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to come to a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement in light of the Tories failure to secure a House of Commons majority. This week, DUP said talks were not proceeding “as expected”, warning Theresa May that their support “cannot be taken for granted”, while inviting the Tories to show some respect.

Theresa May very much needs DUP MPs’ support to pass legislation and secure a majority in the Commons, not least to pass the Brexit legislation announced during the Queen speech. That she still hasn’t managed to obtain a definite promise of support does not bode well for those far trickier Brexit negotiations, and it’ll be interesting to see if ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ also applies to the DUP, who are unsurprisingly seeking to capitalise on the fortune that’s fallen into their laps.

The Queen’s speech

With a minority government, and armed with “humility and resolve”, Theresa May pressed ahead with the Queen Speech on Wednesday, laying out the government plan for the next two years. The leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, had previously announced that the next Queen’s Speech will not be until 2019, giving Parliament time to scrutinise Brexit legislation.

The Queen kicked off by highlighting government plans to seek to maintain a deep and special partnership with the EU. While some commented that this “partnership” very much resembles the one that the UK has enjoyed as a member of the EU club for the past forty years, others were more preoccupied with the Queen’s choice of headwear, pointing her hat resembled an EU flag.

Hats apart, 27 Bills were announced during the speech, eight of which were on Brexit, including the Repeal Bill to reverse the European Communities Act (notably renamed from the Great Repeal Bill).

As expected, many elements of the Conservative manifesto which would have been included in the speech had the party achieved a majority were dropped, including plans to cut free school meals, introduce grammar schools and bring in controversial measures on social care such as the infamous “dementia tax”. The speech’s contents also distinctly reflected recent events, announcing a new Commission for Countering Extremism and establishing an Independent Public Advocate to support families affected by public disasters.

How do you like your Brexit

There has been some speculation on whether Theresa May would still be pursuing a “hard Brexit” following the general election in which her Conservatives lost their majority. This week, more than 50 Labour politicians signed a statement claiming that young voters indeed backed their party in 2017 because they wanted it to stop the Tories hard Brexit plans.

To the disappointment of some, Mr Davis reiterated that the UK will still leave the EU single market, as well as the customs union, with the Government’s priority continuing to be ensuring the UK takes back control of its laws and borders. Avoiding a hard border between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland emerged as one of the biggest challenges for Brexit talks.

At an EU summit this week, Theresa May has gone into further detail on the UK’s approach to the Brexit negotiations, in particular on EU citizens’ rights. There was no time scheduled for a response to PM statement, showing EU leaders intention to stick to the agreed timelines, with the next bargaining round only expected in the second half of July.

A “fair and serious” offer

After months of uncertainty, at a summit with EU policy makers on Thursday Theresa May outlined the UK opening offer on the future rights of the 3.2 million Europeans living in the UK.

EU citizens already living in the UK, or those who moved to the country before a “cut off point” yet to be agreed (either the day Article 50 was triggered, on 29 March this year, or at a later date, as preferred by EU negotiators) will be given the chance to build up a “settled status” over five years (similarly to the current residency application process, however the government will try and make an effort to speed up the process). This would grant EU citizens in Britain the same rights to work, pensions, healthcare and other public services as British citizens in perpetuity.

Those commitments will be included in UK law, as the UK tries to escape the jurisdiction of the EU Court of Justice, and are conditional to the EU accepting to grant the rights of UK nationals living in other EU countries.

While German chancellor Angel Merkel called the offer a “good start”, which will soon be reviewed by the EU negotiators team, others, including European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker, branded the offer as “not sufficient”. The existence of differing views also on the EU side shows the complexity of discussions to come, and you could be forgiven for wondering how much progress will be made before the next EU summit taking place in October.

Nobody said it was going to be easy.

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