As the people of the UK seek out the few and decreasing areas of life that no longer include a reference to Brexit, it seems not even Valentine’s Day is safe. Commentators have jumped on the irony of BoJo kicking off the Government’s “Roadmap to Brexit” talks by getting sentimental with the 48 percent on this annual day of romance, while the rest of the UK’s Brexit-free safe space has gotten smaller again. It was a classic BoJo speech, rehashing the familiar arguments for Brexit with an eloquent turn of phrase but a lack of detail that led many commentators to agree his performance to be rather underwhelming. Perhaps most notable point was Mr Johnson’s refusal to rule out resigning from the Government over the UK’s Brexit stance.
The Foreign Secretary inevitably remains a source of substantial frustration for his Conservative colleagues very much in the Remain camp. Although the rather conciliatory tone of the speech was welcome, prominent Conservative Nicky Morgan and The Daily Telegraph have both highlighted that it should have come sooner, such as shortly after the referendum result was announced. Otherwise, everyone assumed their position along the entrenched Brexit battle lines, with Remainers calling the speech terrible and Leavers calling it fantastic, many having decided their verdict before hearing it. The second instalment of the Roadmap to Brexit is out on Saturday starring Theresa May in Berlin.
Leo and Theresa talk borders
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met with his UK counterpart Theresa May in Belfast this week and they have agreed to work together to achieve a frictionless border on the island of Ireland that does not require Northern Ireland to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union. The UK had previously rejected Ireland’s calls to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union in order to avoid a hard border, and has implied that it doesn’t really need to guard its borders. The EU doesn’t feel the same about its own borders and last week said that a hard border was “unavoidable” in the circumstances. The Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney has admitted that the UK is “too big, too proud and too powerful” to accept laws it does not have a say in making. Mr Varadkar has described the Irish border issue the “tricky bit” of Brexit negotiations, as he reassured home viewers that the agreement made in December last year for “full regulatory alignment.”
Northern Ireland is the most unstable it has been in years, as the two prime ministers were in Belfast to encourage the restoration of the power-sharing agreement in Stormont after it collapsed last year. The balance of power has been put under further strain by the DUP gaining significant influence in the British Parliament by entering into a power-sharing agreement with the Conservatives to form a Government, which would make a return to direct rule from Westminster (i.e. the DUP) all the more antagonistic. Tricky, indeed.
The EU retracts the punishment clause
The EU Commission has withdrawn the infamous “punishment clause” from its position paper on the transition arrangement in Brexit after it managed to do a rare thing and unite the UK and EU member states, albeit in their outrage. The clause demanded the right for the EU to ground flights, suspend single market access, and impose trade tariffs on the UK if the UK breached the terms of its transition agreement, without the oversight of even European courts. It didn’t take long before enraged UK politicians noticed that many of their neighbouring EU member states were also unhappy with the surprisingly severe tone of the clause.
The European Council’s Brexit working group has since decided that the EU will take its regular infringement procedure against the UK in the event it breaches the terms of its transition out of the EU. A French Government spokesperson said that the EU should not “humiliate” or “punish” the UK as it would run the risk of fuelling Euroscepticism. However, it remains in the final EU’s draft withdrawal agreement, to be enacted if the UK breaches the residency rights of EU nationals or as the ultimate option in dispute resolution. The amended clause will be published by the end of the month, ahead of negotiations on the transition arrangement.
Immigration has a unique battlefront
Despite immigration being considered a notable motivator for many people voting Leave, both the Leave and the Remain sides of the Cabinet are in unheard-of agreement that immigration is good for the economy and should continue. All of the Cabinet that is, except for the Prime Minister, who usually takes the stance of peacemaker-middle-woman but is still committed to the pledge she made when Home Secretary to bring immigration down to the tens of thousands. This is likely one of the reasons for yet another delay in the publication of the Government’s White Paper on the matter, news which has been met with a scathing response from the cross-party Home Affairs Committee this week.
Yvette Cooper, Chair of the Committee, has called it “irresponsible” of the Government not to have published its plans, which will come into force next year. Not only does this reduce the time available for Parliament to scrutinise the plans, in line with democratic principles that motivated many to vote Leave, but also denies preparation time for the already-struggling agencies covering visas, borders and immigration enforcement in the Home Office. It means that the registration of EU nationals living in Britain will begin before the Brexit immigration bill is passed into law.
Another business body asks for access to the Customs Union
The Institute of Directors has suggested that a partial EU-UK customs union could break the impasse in Brexit negotiations. Such an arrangement, which would cover industrial goods and processed food products, would eliminate potential tariffs and rules-of-origin requirements while still giving the UK the freedom to make trade deals beyond the EU on products and services not included in the union. This is similar to the EU’s relationship with Turkey, which has a customs union on industrial and agricultural processed goods. Of course, no one will be happy with this proposal: it takes away the right of British people to make British law, and the EU doesn’t want its members picking and choosing what aspects of the EU member states enter into.
Meanwhile, Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner is enforcing Labour’s position of constructive ambiguity on Brexit by welcoming the “contribution to the debate” and agreeing it’s a good idea to not rule anything out with regards to Single Market and Customs Union membership, months after he very vocally ruled out continued membership of the Single Market and Customs Union. The battle continues.
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