Brexit weekly: 5 things

The incredible disappearing sector impact assessments

The opposition scored a win last week when it won an opposition motion compelling the publication of the 58 studies looking at the impact of Brexit on different sectors, following a long-running political battle. (I say ‘won’, the Government asked its MPs to abstain, probably because it know there was a good chance it would lose) With everybody now gearing up for some juicy reading, are they setting themselves up for disappointment?

Shadow Brexit Minister Matthew Pennycock secured an urgent question in the House of Commons this week, asking for an update on the timetable for publication.

Brexit Minister Steve Baker had a surprise up his sleeve however, saying it “is not the case that there are 58 sectoral impact assessments” – rather, he claimed, there is a range of documents containing a mixture of quantitively and qualitative analysis, which according to the minister “is constantly evolving and being updated”. He expected that it will take the Government at least three weeks to put the information into a presentable format. Pennycock’s response was scathing – but not entirely unfairly. If the Government doesn’t actually have 58 sectoral impact assessments, then why has it allowed the impression that it does to be sustained over such a long period? Overall, it begs the question – is the issue here political skulduggery or poor communications management?

Barnier encourages May to look to the long-term

As the teams prepared for the sixth round of Brexit talks in Brussels this week, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier was apparently keen to start seeing some more meaningful progress, particularly on the divorce bill and citizens’ rights.

But Barnier also took the opportunity to offer a longer-term challenge to Theresa May, asking her to decide what she wants the UK to look like after Brexit – in particular whether she is happy to ditch the European social and regulatory model for a more free market American approach. Does she want to carry on working closely with Europe – without being quite so intertwined as before – or is she looking to more fundamentally reshape Britain and our relationship with the world.

This isn’t an unreasonable question – and speaks to a fundamental issue of whether those leavers pushing for a free market, low-regulation post-Brexit Britain are really reflecting the views of many of the northern working class leave voters who helped deliver the referendum result, and weren’t necessarily looking for a more free-market, open to the world Great Britain. The impact of this choice will impact not just the future EU/UK political relationship, but the political landscape of the UK. But then the other important question is how long May will be around to influence how it all plays out.

It’s all about the border

One of the thorniest, but perhaps most underappreciated issues to solve in relation to Brexit is the Irish border. The government doesn’t want a physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. It also doesn’t want a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. But it does want to leave the single market and the customers union. So far no one has come up with a way of meeting these competing demands, which is quite possibly because it can’t be done. It’s not just the Government’s wobbly pact with the DUP at stake here, but the sustainability of the whole Northern Irish peace process.

This week, the European Commission said that Northern Ireland may need to remain within the Single Market and Customs Union and avoid regulatory divergence, or risk a hard border which may put the peace process at risks. But the political problems with this approach are obvious, even if we discount the opposition it would inspire from the DUP (which we shouldn’t in any case). Don’t expect an easy answer to this one.

A date for your diaries

With the EU Withdrawal Bill heading back to the Commons next week for a Committee of the Whole House, the Government has added to the hundreds of amendments with one setting a fixed departure point of 11pm on Friday 29th March 2019.

But the author of Article 50, Lord Kerr, provided a small amount of comfort to those remainers clinging onto hope that we can still change our minds. He popped up on the Today programme to suggest that we could still opt to stay in the EU if we want, right up to the moment of departure – saying “It is misleading to suggest that a decision that we are taking autonomously in this country about the timing of our departure, we are required to take by a provision of EU treaty law.” He said that Lisbon Treaty provides the opportunity both to change your mind and to ask for extra time for negotiations.

Of course, this would rely on the British public changing their minds and deciding they want to stay after all. So far, the evidence suggests that while people think that Brexit negotiations aren’t going that well, and aren’t convinced that we’ll be better off once we’ve left, there’s no overwhelming tide of support to half the process of leaving. Unless that changes, Brexit still means Brexit.

The view from Germany

Meanwhile in Germany, the BDI – Germany’s equivalent of the CBI – expressed its scepticism about the 29th March 2019 deadline. Managing Director Joachim Lang said that that it would be extremely difficult to secure a comprehensive trade deal within that period, increasing the risk of hard Brexit which is disrupted to global trade.

This follows from a similar warning last month, when Lang called on German firms to prepare for a “very hard Brexit” and set up a taskforce to look at identifying and managing the risks, as well as his statement that the decision not to proceed to the next stage of negotiations was “regrettable but justified”

With the UK’s Brexit coverage often being focused on UK politics or European Commission intrigue, it’s a useful to keep in touch with how the process if viewed within other member states – and a reminder that it’s not just UK businesses which are concerned about the outcomes.


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