Brexit weekly: 5 things

The ayes have it

Earlier this week, MPs voted through the EU Withdrawal Bill, by a comfortable but typically polarising-for-Brexit-issues margin of 36 votes. None of the Conservative MPs in the Commons opposed the Bill at second reading, as opposition leaders spoke out against proposed legislation they believe represents an “affront to democracy”. Democracy disagreed, however, as seven Labour ‘rebels’ broke ranks against Jeremy Corbyn’s most beloved possession – the ‘three-line whip’ – to swing the count to 326 in favour to 290 against at second reading stage. Unimpressed Conservative Kenneth Clarke abstained, having labelled the Bill an “astonishing monstrosity” last week.

The EU Withdrawal Bill (erstwhile: The Great Repeal Bill) included proposals to introduce tight restrictions on immigration from the EU for all but the very highly skilled. It also allows the Government to make what it argues are minor technical changes to laws during the Brexit process without consulting MPs. While the vote represents a victory for Theresa May’s government, the real challenge will come during committee stage as the Bill is debated line-by-line. The BBC reports that several Conservative MPs plan to table amendments, and expect support from a number of influential select committee chairs. Let’s just say the fun isn’t over yet.

Swiftly moving on

While the UK parliament is engaged in battle over the fine detail of Brexit, the European Union is moving forward, not least with a renewed sense of purpose according to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Britain’s departure from the EU “is not the be all and end all”, said the former Luxembourgian Prime Minister as he touched on the issue for two minutes in a speech lasting over an hour. Juncker said, “the wind is back in Europe’s sails” as he set out a vision for further integration among the remaining 27 in his state of the union speech.

As our European Political Consultant, Sabrina Huck, argued this week in Euractiv, Juncker’s speech was bold and ambitious, calling for greater transparency and accountability from the EU institutions and an end to the concept of a “multi-speed Europe”. However, his vision for a more federalist union could come under threat from the East, where Poland and Hungary are currently in defiance of EU laws on refugee quotas. Sabrina notes that the migration crisis is likely to play a larger role in determining the future prospects for the EU than Britain’s exit, as Italy, Greece, Spain and Bulgaria continue to struggle with the responsibilities granted to the countries as the “first point of entry” for refugees and asylum seekers.

On the whole, Juncker’s speech displayed a resilient EU, determined to make progress towards the ‘ever closer union’ envisaged by its founders. As the Guardian argued this week, Brexit has produced no domino effect, and separatist populism “is no longer seen as an irrepressible force”. For the sake of the UK’s prospects in an exit deal, the sooner Britain’s negotiators realise Brexit is not the be-all and end-all in Europe, the better.

Florence and the May-chine

Theresa May will travel to Florence next week, reportedly to break the impasse in Brexit negotiations, to offer her “third major explanation” on her plans for leaving the EU. The speech will reportedly address concerns in Brussels about a potential €30 billion budget hole arising from Britain’s exit. According to the Financial Times, it will also reportedly introduce the possibility of Britain making payments to the Union during a two-three-year transition phase after March 2019.

Such a move would be welcomed by EU officials, who are refusing to discuss future trade terms before confirming the UK’s exit payments, but the ongoing financial contributions would be seen as anathema for many Eurosceptics in Britain who voted for a brighter economic future outside of the bloc. Downing Street has not confirmed that payments will be discussed in May’s speech next week, but it is an issue well past its solve-by date: both sides had originally planned to be discussing the finer details of a trade agreement by this point. That’s not to disregard the tricky tightrope the Prime Minister is currently walking on exit terms. If May can offer concessions to Brussels next week which satisfy both EU negotiators and a British political establishment which isn’t exactly feeling charitable, the Prime Minister’s trip to Italy will come to be seen as quite the coup.

Irish question remains unanswered

One of the quirks of Britain’s protracted exodus from the EU since the referendum last year has been the constant stream of headlines outlining plans and deals, which appear to represent tangible progress in the Brexit process but – more often than not – simply describe the latest rumours or vague suggestions of policy change in post-Brexit Britain.

One issue in need of speedy resolution is the ‘Irish problem’. In August, the UK government presented a policy document proposing “as frictionless and seamless a border as possible” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland post-Brexit, which was criticised by EU officials for its “magical thinking” and lack of “workable solutions”. Following Parliament’s return from recess last week, DUP MPs have continued to question the Prime Minister, expressing concern that changes to the Irish border will encourage dissident republicans to expose what some see as a fragile peace between nationalists and unionist in the North.

Concern is being felt on both side of the border, with the Minister for Justice in Dublin, Charlie Flanagan, this week claiming that Brexit may hurt the Island of Ireland “more than any other EU state”. Flanagan said, “the time is now right for a degree of clarity from the UK we have not heard to date”, echoing the concerns of many about the unerring effect of the British government’s relative lack of detail on the matter.

In the absence of absolute clarity on customs checks and a ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, a report from an Irish Parliamentary committee this week offered some respite with the offer of ongoing EU funding for peace projects in Ulster funnelled through the Republic. The report said the money could continue to support “efforts to develop and deepen reconciliation… (and) increase tolerance and respect” between nationalist and unionist communities.

Wetherspoons warning

Much has been made of the Brexit impact on the British economy. While the UK initially responded with resilience, pre-referendum warnings from economists have begun to take hold to some extent, and the anxieties of British businesses are increasingly coming to the fore.

One could argue the economic analysis has taken an unnecessarily ‘macro’ view, mind you. It’s all very well and good talking about our concern for British farms, the anticipated increase in manufacturing costs, a damaging exodus of EU-trained nurses for the NHS and the impact on the financial sector in the abstract, but won’t somebody think of Wetherspoons?

Today Tim Martin, chairman of the ever-dominant UK pub chain JD Wetherspoons, urged EU leaders to take a “wise-up pill”, arguing that “the main risk from the current Brexit negotiations is not to Wetherspoons, but to our excellent EU suppliers – and to EU economies.” Martin said that “unelected oligarchs” leading the negotiations for Europe are threatening to damage the customer base for European suppliers in the UK, including Wetherspoons, which is being forced to look elsewhere for their pub-based products.

One could be forgiven for getting lost in the ever-evolving debate on “who is Brexit worse for?”, and the intervention from an outspoken leave campaigner in Martin won’t convince everyone that the EU has the most to lose. The good news for the economy though is that Wetherspoons’ profits soared by 27% over the past year.

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