Brexit weekly: 5 things

Around Europe in 78 days

It’s not exactly been the Grand Tour à la Jeremy Clarkson, but Brexit Secretary David Davis has been clocking up the miles since the turn of the year. He’s visited more than half of the EU27’s capitals since the start of 2018. But there’s been one rather glaring omission. Brussels.

This might sound as if the Brexit Secretary needs to fire his travel agent. But, it very much reflects the importance of not just engaging with the European institutions’ negotiators – chief amongst whom is Michel Barnier – but also to ensure understanding among individual states as to what Britain wants. Each Member State will have to agree to the Brexit deal, so if he’s managed to win at least some hearts and minds, then Mr Davis’ epic collection of air miles will be well worth it.

The Brexit Secretary does head back to Brussels on Monday for latest installment of talks with Mr Barnier. And, speaking to the BBC this week, Mr Davis indicated he was “reasonably confident” a transition phase can be agreed for when the UK leaves the EU this time next year.

That will be music to the ears of many business leaders, a number of whom have called for a transition to give them time to plan and adjust to the post-Brexit world. Getting an arrangement in place will boost business confidence – but the pressure is on Mr Davis to not just close that particular part of the deal, but to make sure a transition is a meaningful one.

Repent at leisure

No-one’s about to accuse the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker of mincing his words on Brexit. Certainly not after this week, when his direct quote to the UK was that there will come a time when “you will regret your decision.”

Mr Juncker is of course the arch-Europhile and integrationist. There’s little doubt the former Luxembourgian Prime Minister has a lack of sympathy for any of the Leave arguments. And, just to underline perhaps how difficult the negotiations will be between now and next March, he was at pains to stress the UK couldn’t cherry-pick on the future relationship as part of an address to the European Commission.

Mr Juncker’s comments held few surprises – they’re the same sentiments he’s uttered for over 18 months. But his speech this week did demonstrate clear differences between the vision of the EU (or at least Mr Juncker himself) and those of Theresa May. But perhaps the most pertinent comments of the day were those from Guy Verhofstadt – the European Parliament Brexit negotiator – who noted the UK needs to move beyond “slogans and soundbites.” A loose translation, following the series of Brexit addresses by UK Cabinet ministers would be ‘stop making speeches and get on with it.’

Raiding the piggybank

Just a couple of years ago, the Budget was in the Spring, the interim financial statement in the Autumn. And then-Chancellor George Osborne (before he went off to see just how many jobs one can do in a week) used to regale MPs with a magic show, during which he would delight in pulling rabbits out of hats.

Philip Hammond doesn’t really go for that sort of thing. The now-Chancellor pushed the Budget to the Autumn and made it clear there would be a statement – not an interim budget, but a statement, in the Spring. So it was hardly a shock when this week’s announcement lasted a mere 26 minutes – austere even in a time of austerity.

The Chancellor might have claimed to be at his most ‘Tiggerish,’ but the invention of a new adjective was about as frivolous as the Spring Statement got. What was important from a Brexit perspective, however, was the Chancellor’s confirmation of funding for government departments to prepare for end of the long goodbye in 2019.

Mr Hammond had set out the planned funding in the Autumn, but reiteration of this financial resource will be welcome for departments creaking under the weight of preparations. But, the questions remain – is the funding enough? And will it go any way to addressing the chronic shortages of specialist capacity in the civil service since the referendum?

Power to the people

Ireland is a major – perhaps the major Brexit issue. A seemingly intractable problem complicated by nearly a millennium of historical conflict.

Such has been the focus on Ireland, poor Scotland and Wales have perhaps had less than their share of airtime in recent weeks. But, fear not: Nicola Sturgeon was down to visit Downing Street this week for discussions over devolved power post Brexit (and, one presumes, to gently remind the PM that Scotland are current holders of the Calcutta Cup after this year’s Six Nations tournament).

Westminster has previously said/suggested/intimated that the “vast” majority of powers taken over from the EU will be devolved to Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont – but 24 areas will remain within the Westminster bubble. The idea is to avoid the scenario of different parts of the UK having different rules for the likes of health and safety, or food hygiene. But if you’re a devolved assembly member, that sounds suspiciously like an English veto.

Mrs Sturgeon, following talks with the PM, suggested an agreement could be reached on what powers are devolved to the assemblies, and which are not – but that a deal isn’t done yet. While the more positive rhetoric may be welcome, the First Minister’s remarks are a blunt reminder that, particularly Scotland (which voted to remain) can throw a spanner in the Brexit works. At minimum, it’s an additional negotiation for civil servants who were hardly twiddling their thumbs before.

Hazardous for your health

It’s difficult to see what else Theresa May could’ve done in response to the attack on Sergei Skripal, for which few fingers are not pointed in the direction of Moscow. Nor was it surprising that Russia responded with somewhere between a shrug of the shoulders and overt ridicule of the British deadline for answers.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius suggested this week that this issue was in part down to Brexit. Specifically the possibility has led to Britain being – or at least perceived to be – isolated as a consequence of the decision to leave the EU. A decision Vladimir Putin is supposedly happy to capitalise upon, figuring an attack on British soil was a pretty safe bet with the UK possessing less international clout when outside the European club.

It’s worth noting that the big players in Europe – France and Germany – joined the UK and US in a statement suggesting all plausible evidence for the attack pointed to Russia. That doesn’t immediately look like isolationism. And of course we shouldn’t forget about British membership of NATO.

But Mr Linkevičius’ point does need consideration. Leaving the EU is a game changer for British foreign policy. And the questions are how that change is managed, and whether leaving could be perceived as a source of weakness or isolation for the UK from capitals overseas.