The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of preventing Brexit negotiations progressing onto the future trading relationship this week, supporting a resolution that “sufficient progress has not yet been made” on major divorce issues to move onto trade. The vote effectively dismisses the UK’s push to advance the talks, with UK ministers anxious to move onto future arrangements rather than the country’s ‘conscious uncoupling’ from the European bloc. Not content with demanding substantial progress be made on the financial settlement, citizens’ rights, the Irish border, the European Parliament also pleaded for Boris Johnson to be sacked, compounding a difficult week for the Foreign Secretary. German MEP Manfred Weber justified the request by appropriating Henry Kissinger’s famous quote about the EU, "Who shall I call in London? Who speaks for the Government? Theresa May, Boris Johnson, or even David Davis?"
The vote clarifies the European Parliament’s stance on Brexit being that of unified support for Michel Barnier and is a huge yet expected blow for anyone hoping for progress in the negotiations. Prominent Brexiteers within the British Government appear to have underestimated European unity. But interestingly, a number of British MEPs voted against progressing the talks, seemingly prioritising their European identity. Unsurprisingly they were lambasted for doing so, although their decision isn’t entirely surprising given they’re set to be out of a job at the end of the Brexit process.
Don’t mention the Brexit
The stark divide between the Europhiles and Europhobes in the Conservative ranks was on full display at the party’s conference, as Remain voters grumbled and Brexiteers continued with the rhetoric they used before they won the vote. This somewhat ironically came a week after many Conservative MPs criticised the stifled and near non-existent debate on Brexit at the Labour Party Conference. The Conference reached a crescendo with Prime Minister Theresa May avoiding the subject beyond the rather vanilla, vague and well-known calls for a good deal and a deep and special partnership.
The conference was a forgettable experience for Boris Johnson, as Conservative MPs echoed the European Parliament’s request for his ear, especially after he made demands for the Brexit negotiations in an apparent attempt to undermine the Prime Minister, also infuriating parliamentary colleagues with his supremely ill-considered remarks on Libya. Oh, and comedian Lee Nelson managed to hand Theresa May a P45 form during her speech, claiming the Foreign Secretary had told him to. Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon used his speech to mock his colleague, quoting the £350 million figure in reference to his own department, and then using Mr Johnson’s often used phrase ‘roaring lion’ hours before the Foreign Secretary used it to close his own speech. All in all, a bad week for the Foreign Secretary, who looks a lot closer to the exit than he did at the start of the week.
Catalonia has outdone the UK
Across the Channel, the EU is occupied with a threat arguably bigger than Brexit in the form of the Catalonian crisis. With Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont insisting the region will declare independence within days, it raises fascinating questions for the European Union. If an area leaves the governance of a member state must it also leave the EU? What would its process for leaving the Union and the currency be? Could the new government have equal voting rights to the government it separated from? To what extent does this undermine Juncker’s calls for more integration and supranationalism over national identity? Does this again expose the problems the EU faces in catering for the little guy? These are all as yet unanswered questions which have not been put to the EU before. The fact that they do not have precedence means that, at the moment, there is potentially room for imaginative interpretation. Also because of the lack of answers, the EU has responded poorly to the crisis, refusing to condemn the police brutality on thousands of aspiring voters, and then on peaceful protestors, in attempt to avoid a fight with the Spanish government.
Some of these issues were raised at the time of the Scottish independence referendum, but events in Catalonia this week suggest they’ll be taken to an unprecedented level. The demand for independence isn’t going away, nor does it look like it’ll quieten as it has somewhat in Scotland. The EU institutions face some difficult decisions over the coming weeks.
Time to energise the debate?
Energy is a very politicised issue in the UK and the potential impact of Brexit on its energy infrastructure raises some interesting challenges and opportunities. There is plenty of energy exchange between the UK and European nations, most importantly for the UK in the form of it meeting 38% (and rising) of its demand with energy bought from Norway, some of its biggest energy suppliers being owned by other European states, and also supply and demand being met through mutual cooperation with the French energy grid. Brexit negotiations are happening alongside the planned shutdown of the country’s biggest gas storage facility, Rough in North Yorkshire, further exposing the UK to the international gas market. The industrial sector has long been neglected in Britain, with industrial energy rates to prove it, and in light of Brexit and the likely cessation of access to the Single Market, the UK’s biggest closely held company is considering making its own version of British Land Rover vehicles in Germany where it can make a 24% saving on industrial power rates. Despite or maybe because of all these threats, energy provision didn’t make it into the Prime Minister’s Florence or conference speeches, beyond the commitment to cap prices for consumers. The absence of discussion, or indeed a position paper, is noteworthy in and of itself, and expect to see calls for greater definition of the Government’s plans in the coming weeks and months.
We’re all in this together
Whisper it quietly, but two points of progress in reaching a final Brexit agreement have been made in the last week. Theresa May pledged an “unconditional commitment” to European defence, and there has been agreement, outside of the formal withdrawal negotiations, on the methodology that will be used to divide up the UK’s quotas from the rest of the EU’s in the World Trade Organisation. News of the UK’s unconditional commitment to European defence has been welcomed by the EU and has helped “set a new tone in the negotiations”. While this has shown Theresa May to have softened her tone in favour of progress in the negotiations for the moment, it is unlikely she’ll keep on giving without getting anything in return. Still, it is welcome that Theresa May has turned her back on a hawkish approach that some Eurosceptics have tried to hold her to, including using intelligence as a bargaining trip, in favour of progress in the negotiations. Meanwhile, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has said that the agreement reached on WTO quotas is “a step forward and it’s a sign we can make progress when both sides choose to do so”.