Europe says thanks, but we need more than that
It was a much-anticipated speech, which negotiators on both sides of the table hoped would break the deadlock in the Brexit negotiations. Outlining her vision for Brexit in Florence last week, Theresa May partially succeeded in this regard with EU chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, calling it “constructive” and “a step forward”.
Responding to the speech, Barnier acknowledged the UK’s position on citizens’ rights, but emphasised this must be translated into a negotiation position. He also highlighted that the speech did not clarify how the Good Friday Agreement would be preserved. With regard to May’s proposal for a two-year transition period, Barnier was keen to reiterate that the terms of withdrawal – on citizens’ rights, financial settlement and Irish border – are the EU’s main priority. But, with a transition period being very much also in the interests of the EU, there has been speculation that Member States could amend Barnier’s mandate and allow him to start talks on this implementation phase before the terms of withdrawal have been finalised.
Speaking to the media right before meeting with Brexit Secretary David Davis for the fourth round of negotiations, Barnier reiterated that the EU27 is completely united in its position on Brexit. This was also clear from responses by EU leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who echoed Barnier’s statements on May’s speech. It looks like it takes a little bit more than a trip to Florence to crack these talks…
Seconds out … round four
Brexit Secretary David Davis and his team were back in Brussels this week for the fourth round of Brexit negotiations. Michel Barnier acknowledged that Theresa May’s Florence speech had created a “new dynamic” to the talks, in which Davis said “decisive steps forward” had been made.
But, soundbites aside, the champagne will have to remain on ice. Barnier insisted that still many issues regarding withdrawal terms remain. While the UK has agreed to give direct effect to the Withdrawal Agreement – granting individuals the chance to appeal to UK courts, while invoking EU legislation – and transpose it to UK law, negotiators could still not agree on the role of the European Court of Justice in protecting citizens’ rights. The UK was also unable to further clarify its financial commitments to the EU.
The pressure is on as Barnier said it could be “weeks or months” before talks can move to the second phase of the discussions: the future relationship. 19 October is the deadline for the UK, as EU leaders will then come together to determine if sufficient progress has been made in the negotiations. Finalising a free trade agreement with the EU will depend on reaching this deadline, so the UK will pull out all the stops over the upcoming weeks to achieve this.
Have Brexit will travel
Theresa May was not the only one traveling to the shores of Europe to chat Brexit.
In a bid to woo Europeans, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis embarked on a journey of several EU member states. Johnson is going east, covering Prague, Bucharest and Bratislava to talk security, Fox met the Dutch minister for foreign trade and business organisations and EU Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström. Davis, following his appearance at the fourth round of Brexit negotiations, met with Dutch and Belgian officials. Some diplomats have expressed concern that the three Brexiteers’ charm offensive is a sign that the UK is trying to bypass Barnier and instead seek backing from member states to move forward to the second phase of negotiations. So far, there’s no indication of the EU27 breaking ranks.
On this side of the Channel, Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE Group in the European Parliament and European Parliament’s Brexit spokesperson, toured Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, speaking to those affected by a possible future border. Verhofstadt even waded into domestic policy via an attack on the UK Home Office and Home Secretary Amber Rudd. Some EU nationals in the UK have been delivered wrongful deportation notices since the referendum, which (unsurprisingly) went down like the proverbial lead balloon in the European parliament. But Verhofstadt did not stop there: At a speech at the London School of Economics on Thursday evening, he mocked Theresa May’s choice of Florence as the backdrop for her latest speech, saying the Prime Minister would feel “at home” in Florentine politics in the 15th century for its “backstabbing, betrayal, noble families fighting for power”, an environment which “she recognised very well.”
And a difficult week for Theresa May was added to by a Donald Tusk house call to No.10, when he announced he believes insufficient progress has been made to move negotiations onwards to a new trade deal.
Meanwhile, grumblings rumble on over the transfer of Oliver Robbins from the Department for Exiting the EU to Downing Street. Robbins is taking up to 20 top civil servants with him, and suggestions the move is an opportunity to focus on negotiations have fallen on deaf ears in many quarters. Cue speculation the now former Permanent Secretary in David Davis’ department is actually on the move having fallen out with his old boss. And that’s before the question of what the move of this Whitehall heavyweight means for Davis’ authority ahead of further talks in Brussels.
Missing … one Brexit debate
Those looking to settle the debate on which post-Brexit model Labour should champion will be left disappointed by this year’s party conference. The Corbyn-backing campaign group Momentum recommended their members – which were holding a majority of delegates – not prioritise Brexit motions being debated on the conference floor, avoiding the exposure of disunity in the Party. While Labour members are largely in favour of continued single market membership, Corbyn deems it necessary to leave the EU trading block after a transitional period to enact his vision of a total reboot of the UK economy.
Although Labour may have been celebrating the Prime Minister’s support for a transitional period as a sign of its ability to set the policy agenda, the Party has neither overcome its internal divisions nor given a credible alternative to Tory plans for the future. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer advocated for a “new Single Market” or bespoke trade deal in his conference speech, but did not explain how this can be achieved if Labour wants to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Playing both sides works in Corbyn’s favour for now, but if Labour returns to power at the next election, the ambiguity of today might come back to haunt them tomorrow.
Merkel to the rescue? Don’t sit by the phone
Brexiteers were eagerly anticipating Angela Merkel to be returned as Chancellor of Germany at the federal elections last Sunday. They hoped that as soon as the elections are done and dusted, Merkel and her new coalition partner, the liberal, pro-business Free Democratic Party would come to the rescue and throw their weight behind a new trade deal for Britain. But despite the Christian Democratic Union winning the most votes, there was no cause for celebrations: the result was not as good as expected, with Merkel now being forced to negotiate a three-way coalition between her party, the FDP and the Greens.
The story of the night was the first-ever entry into the Bundestag of the Alternartive fur Deutschland, a far-right populist party which has caught international attention because of their openly anti-Muslim, anti-migrant policies and supporters connected to the organised far right. Despite UKIP inviting AfD representatives to speak at its own party conference, the AfD’s platform was not focused on Euroscepticism but rather Mrs. Merkel’s refugee policy. It’s not immediately likely that their election will propel Euroscepticism at the forefront of the political agenda, thus helping the Brexiteers’ agenda.
Over the coming weeks, German politicians will be kept busy with the challenging tasks of coalition negotiations and reflecting on the electoral success of a far-right party. Chances are that Brexit will slip further down the agenda.
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