1) So Much For Theresa May’s Brexit Breakthrough
It was the worst kept secret in Brussels, but Michel Barnier has officially confirmed what we’ve known for months: there has not been “sufficient progress” in the Brexit talks to recommend the two sides begin trade negotiations.
The plan was for the discussions around citizens’ rights, the Northern Ireland border and the financial settlement to be virtually concluded after this week’s round of talks, allowing Barnier to tell the EU27 at a summit next week that trade deal talks could start from November.
It has been clear for quite some time this deadline was going to be missed, even with Theresa May attempting to jump start the talks with her Florence speech.
Barnier’s big reveal was somewhat scuppered earlier in the week by European Council President Donald Tusk, who said in a speech on Tuesday he believed “sufficient progress” could be achieved by December.
Judging by Barnier’s joint press conference with David Davis on Thursday morning, you might be forgiven for thinking it will be December 2018 before the talks move on.
Despite May’s promise to pay the UK’s budget commitments after March 2019, Barnier said of the financial settlement: “We have reached a state of deadlock, which is very disturbing.”
He also said: “The UK told us again that they were not prepared to specify these commitments.”
Davis stuck to the line that it is difficult for the UK to make specific commitments until the trade talks begin, saying: “We have made clear this can only come later.”
The lack of progress prompted one hack to ask: “Are you two just not very good negotiators?”
2) Of Course It’s Not All About The Money, Michel…
During the press conference, David Davis tried to put a positive spin on the talks, pointing to “significant progress” on citizens rights and Northern Ireland.
But what is this “significant progress”? There is still no definitive model for how the Northern Ireland border will operate when the EU and UK have different customs regimes after Brexit. Both sides agree they don’t want to undermine the peace process, but actual concrete examples of how to police a border without using…erm…police are in very short supply.
Even the progress on citizens rights has been slight. Davis announced today an agreement is close on allowing EU citizens to enforce their rights in UK courts, but he also listed a whole range of areas where there are still disputes.
These include the right to bring in future family members, send benefits out of the UK, vote in local elections, and how long an EU citizen can be out of the UK for before losing their right to return.
These were all part of the Government’s offer on EU citizens published earlier this year, and the fact they are still up for discussion begs the question: what progress has been made?
Judging from the press conference, in which Barnier was scathing about the divorce bill but not movement on Northern Ireland or citizens’ rights, it seems “sufficient progress” in the eyes of the EU looks like this:
Northern Ireland: ‘It’ll be alright on the night!’
Citizens’ rights: ‘Yeah sure, we’ll work it out later!’
Financial bill: ‘We want you to set out every single euro you are prepared to pay right now.’
3) The Government Planning For ‘No Deal’ Is A Good Thing
Back in Blighty, all the talk this week has been about Hard Brexit. Theresa May and her colleagues have had the absolute nerve to start planning for how to cope if the UK leaves the EU without a trade deal. White papers were produced on customs and trade – which are surely the actions of a sensible government (unlike Messrs Cameron, Osborne and, erm, May before the referendum).
The main takeaway from the customs paper is what a nightmare no deal could be for the UK’s borders (something I’ve been banging on about in this briefing for months now). Goods vehicles would have to be checked by customs officials before they get to roll-on, roll-off ports as these are “space-constrained”, and small parcels coming from the EU would be subject to VAT.
When it comes to Northern Ireland, the Government still hasn’t got a clue, and is asking people to send in their ideas, in what could be called a ‘Blue Peter’ Brexit.
The trade paper reinforces the limitation of the post-Brexit transition period – namely that new trade deals cannot be activated during the two years.
In a slight rowing back from all things free trade, the paper acknowledges the Government may need to step in to tackle practices such as steel dumping:
“If a particular domestic industry suffers harm as a result of distortions of international trade (including through state-assisted subsidies and dumping), trade, remedy measures can be used as a safety valve to ensure fair trade…without action, this could have serious effects on certain UK industries including those in the steel, ceramics and chemicals sectors.”
These reports were met with much wailing from Remainers, with fears the Government was putting its foot down on the Hard Brexit accelerator.
Strangely, the narrative a few months ago was that the Government was clueless and not doing enough planning.
4) Philip Hammond Is The Remainer Version Of Boris
Another week, and another Cabinet minister going beyond the agreed line on Brexit. After Boris Johnson’s rogue red lines enraged the die-hard Tory Remainers before conference, Philip Hammond decided to wind up the Brexit headbangers now Parliament has returned.
He told a Treasury Select Committee the vote to leave the EU had created a “cloud of uncertainty” over the economy and planes could even be grounded if there is no Brexit deal.
Hammond also appeared reticent to start spending cash preparing for a no-deal outcome, saying he was “not proposing” to “allocate funds to departments in advance of the need to spend.”
A few hours later in the Commons, May delivered a slap-down to the Chancellor, telling MPs: “We are committing money to prepare for Brexit, including a no deal scenario.”
According to HuffPost UK’s Paul Waugh, who knows about such things, the public row is a continuation of private frustrations expressed in Cabinet this week.
Defra Secretary Michael Gove suggested that every week all ministers should set out how much they are spending on no deal preparations. Transport Secretary – and fellow Brexiteer Chris Grayling – backed up Gove’s suggestion, prompting Hammond to suspect he was getting bounced into handing over more cash.
May’s reply in PMQs reassured Brexiteers that no deal was still very much an option, and she needed to curry some favour with that wing of her party after her performance on LBC on Tuesday evening.
When asked if she would vote Leave if another referendum was held, she refused to say – hardly an endorsement of your Government’s flagship policy.
Her close ally and proxy-Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green had no such reluctance to give an answer, telling Newsnight he believes the country would be better off inside the EU.
May’s LBC comments came a day after she provoked Brexiteer anger in the Commons by suggesting the UK would still be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice after March 2019.
She said: “We have to negotiate what will operate during that implementation period, and yes, that may mean we will start off with the ECJ still governing the rules we are part of for that period, but what we’re also clear of is that we can bring forward discussions and agreements on issues like a dispute resolution mechanism and if we could bring that forward at an earlier stage then we would wish to do so.”
At least David Davis is managing to remember which way his guns should be pointing, writing to Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer on Thursday evening challenging him to set out just how much taxpayers’ cash he would hand to the EU to get the talks moving.
Don’t Get Angry, Get Blogging…