Brexit weekly: 5 things

Court in a trap

The nation stopped this week as the Government released the latest of its position papers on aspects of the UK’s departure from the EU – this time on the role, or otherwise, of the Brexiteers’ favourite bogeyman, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and how the UK and EU would settle disputes post-Brexit.

This was a position paper in the purest possible sense, setting out several different options for handling the inevitable arguments over trade that every nation has. The Government sent out arch-Brexiteer (and Justice Minister) Dominic Raab to trumpet the fact that the UK would indeed by ‘taking back control’ by escaping from the ECJ’s “direct jurisdiction”. At the same time, Remainers could content themselves with Mr Raab’s acknowledgement that the UK would be keeping “half an eye” on the ECJ’s ruling and the suggestion that the ECJ keep its jurisdiction during the Brexit transition period that is planned after March 2019.

So, unusually, everyone seemed content enough with what the Government produced. The problem for the Government is that at some point it will actually have to make a choice about which option it wants to follow. Given the totemic role of the ECJ for both Brexiteers – the symbol of foreign control over British laws (and also often confused with the completely separate European Court of Human Rights) – and for the EU itself – the symbol of supranational authority that makes an unwieldy political association of 28 countries work more or less smoothly – this is going to be a headache. But for a Government that has enough of these already, it is at least a headache postponed.

Goods show

Indeed, this week saw a veritable tidal wave of position papers from the Government on Brexit arrangements, with another three (in addition to the paper on resolving disputes) published – on confidentiality of official documents (dull but worthy), the free flow of personal data after Brexit (same) and ensuring continued availability of goods for the EU and the UK post-Brexit.

The latter paper was less dull, though still fairly uncontentious. It called for the EU to agree on guarantees that goods on sale prior to March 2019, when the UK finally leaves, can continue to be on sale in both the UK and EU without any further restrictions, and it went on to suggest that the UK continues to be a part of systems that alert Member States to unsafe products, such as medicines and food, and remain part of “mechanisms to take action with respect to non-compliant goods”.

All things the EU will probably agree to – eventually. These issues all fall into the discussion about the future relationship between the EU and the UK, which the EU will only move onto once negotiations are complete on the amount Britain must pay as the divorce settlement, the status of EU citizens in the EU (and vice versa) and the future Irish border. Progress has been distinctly slow on these issues, so Britain’s Brexit Secretary, David Davis – who had once threatened “the argument of the summer” if a future relationship was not discussed alongside terms for the divorce – is trying to move the conversation along. The problem for Britain is that the EU wants to stay talking about money, people and Ireland. It will politely read the UK’s position papers with interest; and then ignore them until it is good and ready to chat.

Descending further

The Office of National Statistics revealed this week that net migration into the UK had fallen sharply in the year to March 2017, down 81,000 to 246,000 – with 51,000 of those leaving the UK citizens from the EU. Of this latter amount, 17,000 citizens of the just eight EU countries – Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia – departed from the UK.

The Government wheeled out Brandon Lewis, latest holder of The Worst Job In Government, Minister for Immigration, to trumpet the fact that immigration had gone down three quarters in a row. 246,000 is still a very long way from the Government’s target of 100,000, a figure that has been in place since 2010, never been close to being achieved and now must legally come with the phrase “widely derided” attached.

That these statistics covered the immediate post-Referendum period meant that they were inevitably linked to Brexit, even though rules governing freedom of movement remain unchanged and, given the inevitably of a transition period after March 2019, look likely to remain unchanged for some time. However, Brexit may well have played a role: potential migrants may well have been put off by uncertainty over their long-term future, or by the spike in hate crimes that followed the EU vote – neither of which are great things to boast about.

Or maybe the UK’s vote to leave was just one of many reasons for EU workers to either stay at home or choose another Member States. The economies in the EU8 mentioned above are booming: Poland is increasingly attracting seasonal workers from the Ukraine to pick fruit, a job that Poles now disdain (sound familiar?) Free movement has now been in place for over a decade: perhaps those that wanted to come have already done so?

Either way, the push factors propelling citizens from other Member States to the UK are less forceful and Britain’s own pull factors weaker. Brexit undoubtedly played a role, but how big a role is a matter for discussion.

Taking back control

The First Ministers of Scotland and Wales met this week to warn of a naked power grab by a distant, inaccessible and unpopular institution based outside of their borders. Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of Labour put aside their party differences to demand that their respective legislatures were able to take back control of laws that would affect the people in Scotland and Wales – and warned of consequences if they were ignored. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Ms Sturgeon and Mr Jones met ahead of the introduction to Westminster of the EU Withdrawal Bill (once known as the Great Repeal Bill) in autumn, which promises the transfer of EU law into UK law – but no further. To the SNP and Labour this is a vast assumption of powers by the UK Government over issues, such as fishing and agriculture, that should be the responsibility of governments in Wales and Scotland respectively. The Conservative Government promises that it’s just a temporary measure and that, eventually, there would be a “powers bonanza” for the devolved administrations.

The SNP and Labour are suspicious, partly because of previous rhetorical tub-thumping from Theresa May downwards. But the Conservatives – ironically propped up by the DUP, the largest party from the third devolved administration – are now in no position to ignore the concerns of Wales and Scotland. The UK Government is negotiating already but it’s another concern for them ahead of what promises to be the nightmarish attempt to pass the-Bill-formerly-known-as-the-Great-Repeal-Bill this autumn.

A Taoiseach tours

Finally this week, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar chose to make an appearance at the site of the border between two very similar countries – both part of a shared landmass, with intertwined histories and an extremely close and integrated trading relationship today.

It was the US Canadian border, which may be “highly efficient” as Mr Varadkar said but also was very much a hard border with “armed guards, dogs, flags and checkpoints” that cost the Canadian Government €1bn plus to maintain. Just because countries are close, just because neighbours are technologically advanced, just because there is a clever scheme in place to identify ‘trusted’ importers – none of this, Mr Varadkar was not very subtly implying, meant that the border was ‘frictionless’.

Now what point could the Taoiseach possibly have been making?