Brexit weekly: 5 things

Oh, to be a fly on the wall

This week started with a rather lengthy round trip for Theresa May for a spot of dinner with EU chief negotiator Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels. Following last week’s warnings that talks have stalled, making it increasingly unlikely the two sides will move on to future trade negotiations until at least December, the pair emerged from the dinner saying they will “accelerate” attempts to reach a deal. What that looks like isn’t entirely clear: both sides knew the tight timetable when Article 50 was triggered, and accelerating the talks would appear to require that all important breakthrough on the divorce bill, which still seems some way off. Either way, Juncker didn’t strike the most positive tone for the dinner, saying to journalists “I will meet Mrs May this evening, we will talk and you will see the autopsy.” Quite what was on the menu was anyone’s guess.

With love, from Theresa

Maybe this dinner pushed the PM into action, or maybe she carried on with her week afterwards as planned. It seems entirely plausible that her open letter to EU citizens living in the UK, published on her Facebook page this week, was motivated by the former. She urged EU citizens to trust that “We are in touching distance of agreement” on their rights on residence, healthcare, pensions and other benefits, and that the digital system being designed to allow EU residents to apply for settled status in the UK will incur “no more than the cost of a UK passport” (for those interested, it’s £72.50 for a standard adult first passport).

Responses from the official Facebook accounts of Sir Vince Cable and Jeremy Corbyn – which come across as painfully obvious attempts to “engage with the yoof”- said it was “laughable” that the Home Office would create an efficient applications system, and that it was a “weak message from a weak Prime Minister.” So maybe they won’t be accepting Theresa’s Candy Crush requests any time soon.

One last plea

As expected, the EU 27 added insult to injury at the European Council summit today, where they have made their final decision on whether to proceed to trade talks without letting the UK pitch in. May addressed the summit last night over a working dinner, implying that she needs talks to progress to prevent Eurosceptics in the UK from rounding on her (further). This has produced some symbolic gestures at least: the EU 27 have confirmed they will begin to discuss trade amongst themselves, even if not with the UK; and Angela Merkel and the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte have deliberately made more encouraging public statements to put the best spin on the Council’s decision.

One theory behind this is that the remaining EU leaders fear what impact any more critical comments could have on May’s standing among British MPs and her ability to win concessions among them – both from Remainers who continue to threaten rebellion in the next stages of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and Brexiteers who could take the Conservative leadership from May and pursue an even harder position. The EU is treading carefully, but will undoubtedly be considering how long they can afford to do so for.

Make leave mean leave

May received a letter of her own this week from the Leave Means Leave group, calling for her to move past the deadlock in talks with Brussels – not by making any concessions, but by announcing now that the UK will leave without a deal and operate on World Trade Organisation rules from the end of March 2019. While it was signed by ardent Brexiteers such as Lord Lawson, John Redwood and Tim Martin of JD Wetherspoon, and is urging May to take the decision to give businesses certainty, it’s highly unlikely it will be received that way by much of the business community. But when set against a backdrop of rising inflation (and further antagonistic Evening Standard headlines courtesy of George Osborne – “BREXIT WAGES SQUEEZE: WILL IT EVER END?”), they may well have a point on the need for a deal to be concluded to end the uncertainty soon.

Things are looking up for EU

And finally, the European Parliament’s polling of citizens’ perceptions of EU membership has shown a 4% increase in the number of people supporting EU membership from last year, with 57% thinking membership is a good thing. Sixty percent also believed their country had benefitted from EU membership, and 47% thought the European Parliament should increase its role in the bloc in future. Interestingly, 55% of Brits interviewed for the poll agreed that EU membership had benefitted the UK – seven percent more than the proportion of the population who voted to remain, and three percent more than voted to leave. It will be reassuring for the EU 27 to see that Brexit hasn’t inspired any similar rebellions in other member states, particularly with the steep escalation of tensions in Spain and Catalonia in recent weeks. In the UK though, it wouldn’t be surprising for the figures to crop up in conversation among Remainers still pushing for a second referendum – has someone called Lib Dem HQ yet?



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