Brexit weekly: 5 things

Will they, won’t they?

You might think you’re experiencing déjà vu reading the news this week, but no, you’re not: the Government is still discussing its position on a future customs union with the EU – despite the fact that neither of the options discussed are regarded as viable options by EU negotiators. With less than a year to go, the lack of progress should be cause for concern.

This week, the Daily Telegraph reported that the Prime Minister was preparing for Britain to stay in the customs union beyond 2021 to ensure no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The border is still one of the politically most difficult problems to solve and, so far, nobody has come up with a better solution than remaining in the customs union. That hardly sits well with Brexiteers, but given one of the solutions being considered by ministers would be reliant on technology that doesn’t yet exist, alternatives are thin on the ground. It’s understandable that campaigners keep pushing for a commitment from Theresa May on what a future customs relationship looks like, but the answer to this seemingly intractable problem still seems far off in the distance.

As it has rather become the routine of, reports this week that the ‘war cabinet’ had agreed on a solution were vehemently denied by Downing Street. We are still leaving the European Union, and this includes the customs union, the Prime Minister said. But the question of how to do that and satisfactorily address the Irish border issue remains unanswered.

It’s all back to where we started on Monday.

How’s Lexit going, comrades?

As Labour failed to force the Government’s hand to publish its internal papers on a customs union plan after an opposition day motion was defeated in the House of Commons on Wednesday, internal pressure continues to grow on Jeremy Corbyn to shift the Party’s position to backing a second referendum on the final deal.

The youth and students-led ‘For our Future’s Sake’ campaign, which advocates for a vote on the terms of the Brexit deal, prominently features some Young Labour activists, including the Chair of Labour Students – one of the main organisations supplying eager volunteers to knock on doors for Labour during election season.

The centrist Progress group is also running its ‘Labour Say’ campaign, which seeks to put forward motions at Constituency Labour Parties forcing a vote at the Labour Party conference to give members a say over the Party’s policy. And another organisation ‘Remain Labour’, is even advertising for a paid organiser to have its motion submitted to conference by as many Labour branches as possible.

Some might say that this is a coordinated effort by Labour moderates to undermine Corbyn – a known Eurosceptic. But after the East Coast train line has been taken back into public control this week, pro-Jeremy Remainers are eager to point out that the Corbyn manifesto is workable within the framework of EU competition and state aid rules.

We can certainly look forward to a political showdown at Labour conference this autumn.

 The only way is up

This week, new Home Secretary Sajid Javid dashed over the channel to meet the European Parliament’s chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt for a discussion on EU citizens rights in Britain – a sensitive subject since the Windrush scandal has strengthened feelings of suspicion among EU citizens that the UK immigration system will not protect their rights long-term.

When cornered by journalists for comments after the meeting, Javid reportedly tried to make a sharp escape through an assistants’ entry to Verhofstadt’s offices – but ended up walking straight into the arms of eager Brussels hacks. To make matters worse, Javid and his entourage then hurried to a lift which failed to close its doors due to overcrowding multiple times, leaving a sorry picture of the Home Secretary squashed somewhere in the back. If that was not enough, someone then pressed the wrong button to go upstairs, which meant that he had to come back down again first before he finally found salvation and managed to exit the building.

Things can only get better from here.

Meanwhile, on the continent… we have bigger problems

Italy looks set to confirm a new government within the next few days, as the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right Lega Nord are forming an anti-establishment coalition. This does not bode well for the EU, as both parties have strong Eurosceptic tendencies.

Leaked drafts of their potential coalition agreement see them call for a renegotiation of the European treaties, a euro opt-out mechanism, the reduction of Italy’s contribution to the EU budget and the cancellation of Italian government debt.

Whilst the finer details of the agreement still have to be negotiated, it is alarming for the future of the European project if a founding member is going down this political route. And this only adds to problems still boiling under the surface in other countries, such as Poland and Hungary.

More than ever, the block needs strong leadership. Many had hoped that, after the election of Emmanuel Macron, a strong French-German partnership could drive forward the reforms the EU needs to tackle its root problems. But since Mrs Merkel suffered a humiliating election result at home in September, ambitious projects for Europe are on the back burner for the Germans.

The battle over Zuck

It was reported this week that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had accepted an invitation to appear in front of the European Parliament to testify over the company’s data usage. The European Parliament’s president Antonio Tajani has said that he hopes for Zuckerberg to appear in Brussels as early as next week.

Remainers were quick to notice that Zuckerberg has yet to accept an invitation to appear in front of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. Some attributed this to further evidence for the declining role of Britain on the world stage, but Brexiteers were quick to point out that the European hearing might be held ‘behind closed doors,’ which would limit information flow to the general public, whilst Britain has insisted on an open meeting. What might be a flex of powerful European muscles for some serves as reinforcement over the shady ways Brussels operates – but what the debate demonstrates is how so much is now seen through the prism of Brexit in British political discourse.