The European Council leaders have given the green light to the transition arrangements post “Brexit-day” but this symbolic breakthrough has been relegated from the front pages; Instead the fall-out from the chemical attack in Salisbury, the domino effect of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook revelations and the confirmation of a US instigated trade war has dominated coverage.
Theresa May secured a real victory yesterday, persuading the EU Commission to both publicly agree that Russia was behind the chemical attack in Salisbury, as well as to beef-up its condemnation of Putin’s regime. Five EU nations – led by France – are anticipated to follow the UK example and expel Russian diplomats and the EU has already recalled its ambassador from Moscow.
Certainly this is a real coup for the Prime Minister, but I don’t think the irony is lost on anyone that membership of the European Union has facilitated a coordinated and effective response to a threat such as this from the East.
Full steam ahead?
There was a feel good vibe in Brussels on Monday as the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, and the EU Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier announced a significant step forward in agreeing a 21-month implementation period following 29th March 2019 – the date the UK formally leaves the EU.
Businesses understandably breathed a huge sigh of relief, but they should continue to make contingency plans in the event of a no-deal, although this scenario appears less likely. Despite the back-slapping, currently these are just agreements in principle and we would do well to remember one of the catchphrases of Brexit: “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. This agreement has been fudged again – particularly on Northern Ireland and governance of the overall EU/UK future relationship - to the extent that it could all still unravel. Further still, securing a transition deal has been defined by climb downs from the Government including a shorter transition period than desired, the continuation of the Common Fisheries Policy, and EU citizens having the right to get residence status during transition. Tory hardliners have been told to keep their eye on the end-state despite these concessions.
On the updated – and now colour coded – draft withdrawal agreement, issues relating to the Irish border are still not green lighted and the can has been kicked down the road yet again. However the crunch is coming soon with the EU warning that negotiations can only progress once the UK has outlined a robust alternative to its “backstop” solution of keeping Northern Ireland in regulatory alignment with the EU.
So what next? In theory, by the time the European Council meets on 28 and 29 June, the EU wants solutions to the Irish border problem, to have mitigated any differences in the Brexit withdrawal treaty text, and nailed down what sort of relationship will be had after 2020. With the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadker, saying last night though that he "would rather have the right deal in October than any deal in June", expect any solution to go to the wire as the treaty is scheduled to be signed in October. Either way, some kind of progress towards a breakthrough or clear options will be needed.
What this week has revealed is that the EU is more flexible than imagined. The talk was tough about the Irish border from day one, but the issue has been allowed to slip. Privately, the Irish Government is increasingly concerned, with some Eurosceptics mischievously speculating that the EU is using the Irish issue as a proxy to force demands on the UK.
Nonetheless, it has been a surprisingly easy ride this week and the formal adoption of the guidelines, is certainly another key step as the Brexit process gathers momentum.
Want you back for good
Despite the progress, the chorus of those who wish to water-down or thwart Brexit entirely grows louder - and the EU is keeping the door very much open for a U-turn to end all U-turns. Intriguingly, this week the EU promised to completely rethink its plans if the UK changes its position on the red lines that are preventing a closer partnership. Code for – “It doesn’t have to be like this”.
Prominent remainers within Labour are starting to ramp up their activity. Chuka Umunna is the figurehead continuing to lead an increasingly organised cabal of politicians, activists and professional campaigners. Intelligence is being shared prior to big announcements – enabling the Remain coalition to hit the airwaves at the same time and pull apart what they perceive as the Government’s reckless negotiating strategy.
The EU continues to take a hard line publicly but behind the scenes, officials have supposedly indicated they would agree to stop the Article 50 clock to allow time for significant new developments such as a referendum on the final deal, or another general election, if necessary.
Owen Smith, the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has gone further today and explicitly called for the public to be given a meaningful vote as “we have the right to keep asking if Brexit remains the right choice for the country”. His case presents a conundrum to the Labour front bench and their position advocating membership of a Customs Union – yet Smith says this is the bare minimum required and even under Labour’s scenario the country will still be worse off and have less influence without having voted for it. The challenge for Umunna, Smith and the Labour Campaign for the Single Market is whether they can persuade the party leadership that a policy advocating another referendum is the truly democratic path to choose.