June 22, 2017
Like an embarrassing drunk at a party, the UK lurches towards the exit. My latest long piece on the Brexit state of play, published by the European Policy Centre, assessed the post-election strategy of Prime Minister May. It was written before the calamity of Grenfell Tower after which her credibility as a party and national leader fell even further.
My earlier prediction was that the Conservative party would keep Theresa May in office until she had delivered Brexit on 29 March 2019. But nobody can now tell, least of all her, whether the Tories will jettison her in the course of the next weeks and months.
Fortunately for Mrs May, if not the country, Boris Johnson continues to make a fool of himself.
And thirty pro-EU Tory MPs have started to organise themselves against the hard-line Brexiteers.
Despite the government’s difficulties, it has at least started off the formal Article 50 talks (19 June) in a sensible way. It has accepted without demur the EU’s sequencing of the negotiations, including the fact that the future trading arrangement will not begin to be discussed until “sufficient progress” has been made between Michel Barnier and David Davis on citizens’ rights, money and Northern Ireland.
Under the influence not least of Chancellor Philip Hammond, the government has now asked for a lengthy transitional agreement. This will probably comprise retaining membership of the customs union until such time as a more comprehensive free trade agreement, including services, can enter into force. This may take several years.
If the EU 27 wishes to minimise the length of the Brexit transition it must speed up its own approach to defining the framework for the future relationship with the UK.
Common sense suggests, as the EU treaties ordain, that that future relationship must be as cosy as possible.
The October meeting of the European Council is the time to trigger Phase II of the Article 50 process after which discussions with London about the longer-term settlement can begin.
Other signals have been sent from London that the UK recognises that it must settle its financial account with the Union it is leaving. It is also accepted that British future engagement with EU spending programmes and regulatory agencies will come at a cost that can be included in what the EU rather misleadingly describes as a “single” financial settlement.
Brussels has been enjoying an unexpected period of general self-congratulation about the amazing unity and solidarity of the EU 27, including the European Commission and Parliament, since the British referendum. This happy episode is about to stop, however.
Brexit apart, the issues faced by the European Council on 22-23 June form a tough and highly charged agenda. Coping with terrorism, building a common security and defence policy, salvaging economic and monetary union, managing the crisis of immigration and catering for Trump, Putin and Erdogan are all issues where divisions among the 27 are lurking in the shallows beneath the surface.
Light the blue touch-paper of Brexit — and stand back.
President Tusk has asked Mrs May to explain herself to the European Council. This is her opportunity to spell out for the first time in detail what she means by seeking a “deep and special partnership”. Generalities about being generous to EU citizens left stranded in Britain will not be enough. The prime minister needs at long last to come clean about her plans for the future of the country — and if the general election was not the time and place to do so, the European Council is it.
The Queen’s Speech
The Queen stunned everyone by dressing up in the EU flag to deliver her short speech from the throne (21 June). Sensibly, she dropped the ‘Great’ from the Brexit Repeal Bill, and added seven other bills designed to compensate for the EU’s impending withdrawal from her realm (immigration, trade, agriculture, fisheries, customs, sanctions and nuclear safety).
The EU 27 are anxious to find out whether Mrs May, with her reduced mandate, can deliver the Queen’s Speech. Nobody knows the answer to that question — although Mark Elliott has written about it.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could help us with this, but he will not and cannot.
He will not because Labour has a long established habit of trying to dish the Tories on Europe and it will be sorely tempted to act according to type this time too. And he cannot clarify Labour’s policy because it is itself almost as badly divided as the Tories.
Labour fought the election on a promise to respect the outcome of the referendum. Its Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer (correctly in my view) divines such respect to mean leaving the single market. Chuka Umunna, however, another young Labour MP touted as a future leader of the party, has corralled fifty Labour colleagues, MEPs and Lords to call for staying in the single market. Although they do not admit it, this means membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), like Norway.
Playing the Liechtenstein card
But like many Remainers, Mr Umunna wants a special deal for the UK in which the rights of single market membership would not be shackled to the normal obligations of single market membership. This is, of course, nonsense. As one senior EU official told me, Britain cannot expect “to have the rights of Norway with the obligations of Canada”.
Mr Umunna and his fellow Labour conspirators put great weight on the exception granted to Liechtenstein under its EEA agreement to limit the number of persons admitted to work and play in the principality. They hope to emulate this for Britain.
Chuka has clearly never been to Liechtenstein. Were he to do so he would find a castle on a rock, titular home of the prince, who actually lives in Vienna. He would see a village nestling under this rock with a postal museum, a bank or two, a petrol station and an office building adorned with a lot of brass plates. Total pop. 37,000.
Other differences with the UK include Liechtenstein’s use of the Swiss franc and its membership of the EU’s Schengen area. The permit system granted by the EU exceptionally to the micro-state is on account of its limited absorption capacity and its already high level (about a third) of foreign residents.
It is worth pointing out that if the same immigrant quota were to be applied to the UK as Liechtenstein’s, about 600,000 EU citizens would be allowed into Britain each year. So Chuka Umunna and his mates are wrong on many levels.