Brexit weekly: 5 things

It has been another busy week for Brexit negotiations (will there ever be a quiet one?) as David Davis and Michael Barnier concluded the third round of talks yesterday. At the same time, the Prime Minister and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox jetted off to Tokyo, trade delegation in tow.

Bernie the dinosaur

After four days of discussions, the two chief negotiators emerged to deliver a press briefing in the vast Berlaymont building which houses the Commission in Brussels.  The conference was frosty – Bernier accusing Britain of being “nostalgic” about the benefits of EU membership and suggesting that “no decisive progress” had been made on principal subjects. A key area of contention appears to be the current EU spending round, which was agreed by all leaders including David Cameron until the end of 2020. Whilst Bernier is presenting the seven-year spending round as a legal obligation, David Davis and the majority of the Cabinet are unwilling to commit to funding infrastructure commitments in the remaining 27 states after UK departure – aware how this could play with the electorate back home.

The upshot is that negotiations over a future trading arrangement with the EU are likely to be pushed back to December, increasing uncertainty for businesses and the prospects of a lengthy transitional period.

Big in Japan

Alphaville’s 1998 one-hit wonder included the lyric: “things are easy when you’re big in Japan”. As she touched down in Kyoto, Theresa May must have wished the same was true for her own premiership. The three-day trip was intended to send a strong message about the UK’s desire to form bilateral arrangements quickly after Brexit. Well-recognised firms such as Nissan, Toyota and Softbank highlight that the UK has strategic importance for Japan as its second most popular investment destination.

The trip did not pass without incident. During the final press conference Shinzo Abe appeared eager to not irritate other EU countries, and made clear that work on a British agreement could not start until Brexit was concluded. Japan has previously made clear that it would rather the UK remained in the EU, and has underlined the importance of securing tariff-free investment.

Mrs May, who admitted to being “not a great Karaoke fan”, also took the opportunity to comment on her job security, declaring that she was “no quitter” and intended to fight the next election as Conservative Party leader. This was enough to ignite the press in the UK, with prominent critics Nicky Morgan and Grant Shapps touring the studios to express reservations about the new timetable.  May’s bullish remarks are reminiscent of Cameron’s “Brit’s don’t quit” line – which he repeated endlessly in the lead up to the EU referendum. May must hope her own show of strength does not end in a similar fate.

Keir and simple

Labour is officially the party of a soft Brexit, declared Tom Watson on BBC Newsnight. This shift in positions follows an Op-Ed from Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer in last week’s Observer, in which he said that a Labour Government would keep Britain in the single market for the duration of any transitional period, and possibly even longer.

This is a strategic decision from the leadership with one eye on an early general election, and has already delighted Europhiles in the PLP. However, those from northern England and Midland constituencies may fear a backlash if the Party is seen to be backsliding the referendum vote.

Labour’s new position also sits uncomfortably with recent history. Just two months ago, Jeremy Corbyn dismissed three Labour frontbenchers for supporting an amendment in the Queen’s Speech that expressed regret at not remaining within the customs union and single market – a policy now effectively championed by the Leader. If Corbyn is to be consistent, he will now surely have to sack himself.

What price security?

It wasn’t all divorce bill and single market when Messrs Barnier and Davis met this week for the latest round of Brexit talks. The EU’s chief negotiator also found time to note that the UK’s departure from the EU would have “very practical consequences” but that security of the remaining members states was top priority.

The comments were timely, arriving the day the UK deployed RAF resources to Estonia. While talk of a European defence force, which could augment or replace NATO (dependent on your view) has largely dropped off the radar of late, the issue of future security remains a pressing one. Given London’s capabilities in counter-terrorism and surveillance, the EU will certainly be keen to fashion a deal that ensures the UK remains within the intelligence fold, even if it’s outside the single market and customs union. Brexiteers have suggested this is a bargaining chip, but it’s a case of wait and see as to whether the British team are prepared to use security as part of negotiations or seek agreement in a fit of altruism.

Suck it and see

Sales of certain vacuum cleaners will be restricted from today, under new rules driven by the EU. Vacuums using more than 900 watts and emitting more than 80 decibels will be banned when stocks run out, as part of efforts to move towards more energy-efficient product design.

This is a red-letter day in some papers, who love recording Brussels’ interference in the daily lives of their readership. But the rationale underpinning this policy is watertight – research conducted by Which? found that the new models are genuinely better at cleaning and much cheaper to run. “Power does not always equal performance”, said the European Environment Bureau (EEB) in a statement. Sensible advice for us all, as Parliament returns from the summer recess next week.