A picture is worth a thousand words
As David Davis flew to Brussels to begin Brexit negotiations “in earnest” this week, Monday morning’s photo call seemed to say it all: Davis and his UK negotiators sat on one side of the table, seemingly without briefings to guide some of the most intense negotiations the UK has faced during peacetime. On the other side, Michel Barnier and his EU counterparts were armed with piles of meeting notes that some poor aide had doubtless spent hours printing, wondering whether the Brits intended to spend four days talking about the weather.
The picture was immediately seen as symbolic of the UK’s continued difficulties in agreeing a Brexit position, with the Government unable to decide who to appease, and so turning up without one in the hope that it wouldn’t be too important. One does wonder whether the UK team went in on Tuesday morning having done slightly more preparation (or whether an aide was hurriedly told to print official looking papers to at least give that impression).
What did they actually discuss?
Reports suggest this was the case, but with “slightly” being the operative word. In a press conference on Thursday, Barnier described the Brexit talkslast month, this month and next month – as being about organisation, presentation and clarification respectively, and emphasised that he expected the UK to come back to Brussels in August prepared to offer more clarification on key negotiating stances. He noted that this is primarily needed on the financial settlement (or Brexit ‘divorce bill’), citizens’ rights, and the border with Ireland for both sides to be in a position to agree an outline deal by October 2018.
There are continuing disagreements particularly on what ‘progress’ on the financial settlement looks like: the UK wants to have agreed how to figure out the bill by that point, while the EU wants the UK to commit to paying it. The UK is intent on questioning every aspect of its future financial commitments to the EU, so reaching either agreement by October seems unlikely.
Cushioning the blow
Barnier did acknowledge that progress was made on details on the rights of EU citizens, suggesting that the journey on the Eurostar wasn’t entirely wasted. It’s emerged that Philip Hammond has created a plan for a transitional deal continuing free movement for EU citizens into the UK for two years after Brexit, delaying the introduction of a post-Brexit immigration regime until then. Brussels doesn’t seem to have been as generous with its side of the deal though – Brits living in the EU could stay in the country they’ve been living in but wouldn’t be able to move to other EU countries, which EU citizens would still be able to do. The proposal represents more progress in the Government’s approach to Brexit than to negotiations overall, as all Cabinet ministers are said to be on board, including International Trade Secretary Liam Fox who had recently urged for a transition period to last a few months at most.
A report of agreement on a Brexit proposal is a rare thing indeed, with persistent sniping between members of the Cabinet over the last week probably making Davis glad to escape to Brussels for a few days. Now that the immediate post-election anger has diminished and the Conservatives have settled on letting Theresa May stay in No 10 for the time being, those hoping to succeed her – chiefly Hammond, Davis and Boris Johnson – have conducted a briefing war against each other in the media, with Hammond the main target. The Prime Minister had to remind the Cabinet this week that they are technically on the same side when one source suggested that Hammond is attempting to “mess up” Brexit (or words to that effect), indicating where the consensus on the transitional borders deal has come from. Hammond himself stated that his stance of prioritising the economy in Brexit talks has irritated some of his colleagues – however, while he has to defend his continued pursuit of the Conservatives’ longstanding austerity agenda against growing public anger, anonymous quotes from colleagues on his approach to Brexit isn’t the only thing he has to worry about.
A sign of things to come
Finally, the House of Commons repeated its (already clear) stance on Brexit last week by electing renowned Remainer and former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan to be Chair of the Treasury Select Committee over hard Brexit candidates such as Jacob Rees-Mogg. Her predecessor Andrew Tyrie began some tough inquiries into Brexit and the economy before standing down at the election, and Morgan proved this week that she won’t take a soft stance on how the Government handles Brexit.
With the news that the Government provided reassurances to Nissan and Toyota on Brexit which “were robust enough for them to invest in the UK, but avoided any obligation to report to Parliament”, Morgan called for the letters to be published immediately to give assurances to other businesses. As Select Committees don’t hold any firm power over government beyond requiring responses to their reports, Morgan is most likely to create embarrassment for her colleagues over Brexit rather than forcing any substantial policy changes. But with a government so weak, embarrassment could be all that is needed to prompt a change in tactic.
For more information about the Brexit process and its implications, please visit https://whitehousecomms.com/project-brexit/