Brexit weekly: 5 things

Taking your time

Seventy-eight days.

That’s how long it had been between Brussels visits for Brexit Secretary David Davis, who was back on the Eurostar this week for further talks with Michel Barnier. And it turned out to be a visit well made, with agreement in principle – subsequently rubber-stamped by Member State leaders – to a transition period that effectively extends the UK’s membership of the bloc until the end of 2020.

Fundamentally, the transition is a good thing. But, inevitably it runs the risk of helping a lot of people and satisfying very few. Ardent Brexiteers remain of the view the UK needs to get out as soon as possible, and will be incensed by parts of the deal – including payment of an exit bill of c.£39bn, while the UK will continue paying into the EU budget but have no say in decision making during transition. Remainers don’t want a transition either, albeit because they don’t want to leave.

But this is ultimately a good think as it gives businesses if not the certainty they crave, then at least more time to adopt to what will be the new normal. With ‘Brexit Day’ (surely it’s only a matter of time before a Brexiteer demands a public holiday for it) around 12 months away, businesses were facing critical decisions before the end of the year. These can be at least temporarily tabled.

Theresa May and the wider government will be breathing a sigh of relief that this part of the deal is done. But difficult negotiations lie ahead, and fervent opposition remains on both sides of the Leave/Remain divide that leave the PM walking the proverbial tightrope for at least another 12 months. 

The final curtain call

Matt Chorley of The Times’ Red Box has taken to regarding the Brexit Secretary as a performance art installation (the consequence of let’s say some nimble manoeuvring on issues such as the existence of Brexit impact assessments). But it seems strange that in a week in which he’s agreed a transition period, ‘David Davis’ also seems to be preparing for exit stage left from government.

Yet that’s what’s apparently happening, with reports this week that plans are already being considered within Whitehall for the effective rolling up of DExEU.

The end of that particular department has always been inevitable given it is the very exercise in planned obsolesce (see also UKIP, although that has the addition of chronic irrelevancy). But one must question the timings for the roll-up and the Brexit Secretary’s swansong.

While a deal must still be agreed by March 2019 (unless someone changes the clock on that as well…), the implications of Brexit will be felt through the transition period. Equally, given the pressures of Whitehall, does planning for the roll-up of DExEU represent a use of resources that could be deployed elsewhere? Whatever your view, the Brexit Secretary is moving closer to his final curtain call. 

One for all and all for one

Brexit seems to be a bit like buses these days. You wait a while for an agreement and consensus, and then two come along at once.

The first this week was the transition. Sadly, the second reflects continuing global tensions with EU leaders uniting with Theresa May in agreement that Russia was the most likely perpetrator of an assassination attempt on a former spy on UK soil.

The week of course saw the re-election of Vladimir Putin as Russian President for a six-year term – Putin being happy to thank the UK for his victory (he could have also mentioned the lack of opposition for fear of reciprocity). Unsurprisingly Western reaction was somewhat muted, unless your name is of course Donald Trump.

EU leaders meanwhile were clear on their views regarding Russia, although one person who seemed not to get the memo was Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who decided to join ‘The Donald’ in congratulating Putin. Needless to say, his letter and social media commentary wasn’t best received by senior EU figures. 

The fish are smelling in … well, London

As we mentioned before, it’s difficult nigh impossible to find a deal that works for everyone. And while British businesses might have welcomed news of a transition deal, the plans have evoked fury amongst the British fishing industry and coastal MPs.

The issue is that the UK will not regain control of its fishing waters until the end of the transition in 2020 rather than on ‘Brexit Day’ this time next year. While clearly a serious issue for part of the economy, the issue should also be noted as one that’s uniquely managed to put both Ruth Davidson and Nigel Farage on the same side.

Theresa May attempted to mollify concerns of MPs by meeting those earlier in constituencies. But inevitably, Brexiteers like Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg have been in no mood for placation. Cue one of the more memorable stunts in Westminster this year, albeit perhaps not for reasons campaigners had envisaged.

The plan was for campaigners including Mr Rees-Mogg to dump dead fish into the Thames in protest. Sadly they didn’t plan for a particularly robust member of TfL staff, who refused to let their boat dock (and Mr Rees-Mogg board) because they didn’t book mooring in advance. Thankfully for the campaigners, Mr Farage was on hand (because of course he was) to serve as a stand-in champion and chuck unspecified species into the river.

Attendance was unexpectedly light at the protest. Mr Farage insisted that was due to the size of the boat, simultaneously confirming a smaller than expected presence and the laws of physics. In any case, the protest has demonstrated the domestic dissent the Prime Minister can expect – and if this is what happens over the terms of transition, there are some bumpy waters (pun intended) to come during the rest of negotiations. 

Between a rock and a hard place

It’s no secret that Ireland is a major issue in the way of agreeing a Brexit deal. Wales and Scotland, understandably, have their own concerns and want to ensure the continued authority of their respective assemblies, as well as wanting a deal working for both their populations.

Amidst the volume of that discussion, it’s easy to forget about another place with the potential to throw a spanner in the Brexit works. Step forward Gibraltar.

In many ways, this ought to be a relatively straightforward discussion. Gibraltarians have been consistent when asked in confirming they’d like to remain part of the UK, thank you very much. But Spain has for years made claim to Gibraltar. And prior to the confirmation of the transition deal, it emerged that some member states (Spain) were refusing to back the agreement. The price of their acquiescence was the inclusion of Gibraltar among the priorities for discussion for EU negotiators.

This may seem like kicking the can down the road, but it raises a potentially thorny issue. Spain at present seems unlikely to back down, and the UK is highly unlikely to give up Gibraltar anytime soon. Remembering that all EU Member States need to sign off on the Brexit deal, this issue could prove a significant block to reaching an agreement everyone can live with. That’s just one more thing ‘David Davis’ has to think about before his final curtain…

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