Brexit weekly: 5 things

No bravo for bravado

In a game of good-cop, bad-cop, the same week the EU’s Michel Barnier rejects the UK’s key customs proposal (more on that story below), Irish Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney has offered to side with the UK in pressing the EU for an extension to the UK’s deadline to leave. Calling the UK’s attempts to look prepared for no deal as “bravado,” he has urged the UK to push back its leaving date from 29th March 2019 to ensure that a deal is secured. Coveney said that he did not believe no-deal was likely considering neither the UK or the EU could afford it.

Brexiteers, however, have predictably interpreted the offer as EU tactics to stop the UK ever leaving and outright reject it. They’ve been quick to cite this as the slippery slope to forever remaining in the EU as it currently is or in a permanent ‘transition’ arrangement. Making no attempt to appease this powerful group, Coveney said that MPs could not tie May’s hands on Brexit. This is one thing MPs both side of the Brexit battle lines would like to unite on disagreeing with.

The Brexit machine rattles on

In what is known in British politics as the day for taking out the trash, the last day of Parliament before summer recess this year was no different; ministers across government dumped as much bad press as they could before getting out of Westminster for the summer and hoping it all blows over. Prime Minister Theresa May masked a significant Brexit announcement under the particularly dull-sounding title of “machinery of government change.” The statement declared that she will lead Brexit negotiations with the EU going forward, and new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has been relegated to a deputising position.

This isn’t significant because it represents a change in “the machinery of government” but because it is the first time the government has openly admitted this is how government has been working for a while. The Department for Exiting the European Union has had little authority and influence in the negotiations for a long time. This is the primary reason for the resignation of Raab’s predecessor David Davis, who had been sidelined in favour of Number 10’s Olly Robbins. May has used the change in personnel to reset the terms of employment.

Fears pile up

Keen to prove to its Brexiteer battalion and the EU alike that it is prepared for a no-deal Brexit, the Government has declared that it is stockpiling food, medicines and blood. This is one of the few concrete things yet to come from the Government’s £3bn Brexit contingency planning. The public are not sure whether to be alarmed, panicked or just incredulous, but are certainly not taking Prime Minister Theresa May’s advice that they should “take comfort” from the government taking this “responsible and sensible” precaution. Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab also played down the news, saying simply that the Government was working with food supply chains to ensure the UK has “adequate food supplies.” Of course, British grocers have since refuted the claims and describe the Government’s position as ridiculous and completely naive. Former International Trade Minister Lord Price said that the prices of fruit, veg, meat and dairy would increase without a deal because they could not be stockpiled. The Government is expected to announce 70 more contingency measures over the coming weeks, including issuing advice to households.

Fighting for finite control

After Theresa May wrestled with, schmoozed and challenged her cabinet to get consensus on the UK’s negotiating position on Brexit, subsequently weathered two top-level and numerous junior ministerial resignations, and suffered the embarrassment of having to accept bill amendments that undermined said position, the EU has predictably rejected the position as “cherry picking.” The UK wants freedom of movement in goods but not services, two of the EU’s four pillars of free movement which the EU says come as an indivisible package.

Additionally, the EU’s Michel Barnier said that the EU wanted to “take back control” of its own money, law and borders as such as the UK did, and so could not abide by a non-member having responsibility for collecting duties. This is not something May had anticipated having to deal with, as she had planned to apply EU tariffs to products destined for the EU, but Brexiteers had tabled an amendment to the Brexit Customs Bill to prevent the UK collecting taxes on behalf of the EU without reciprocity in attempt to sabotage the UK’s own position.

It always goes back to the money    

New Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has threatened to withhold the £39 billion divorce bill the UK had provisionally agreed to pay the EU if a deal is not made. This move is consistent with both sides ramping up preparations for a potential no deal and trying to prove they could handle it. Raab justified the move by saying that cash doesn’t come without strings attached and both sides needed to fulfil their “side of the bargain.” Raab said “the ball is now in the EU’s court,” and the EU responded by breaking with its previous stance that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” by saying that such a move would break the trust that has built up over the past 18 months of negotiations.