Amid all the furore surrounding Russia’s chemical weapons attack in Salisbury, and the rather less exciting but still important launch of the Spring Statement, Brexit has dropped out of the headlines somewhat in recent days.
That might well be a relief to a populace who largely just want everyone to get on with it, and to politicians who normally have to talk about it every day. Indeed, after recording the latest Moggcast on Monday, Jacob remarked to me his pleasant surprise that we had barely touched on the topic.
Like it or not, however, Brexit is still there, rumbling away, and will no doubt return to centre stage soon. So here is a brief round-up for ConservativeHome readers of the key developments in recent days.
Talks on a transition agreement – the next stage in the process – are underway.
The EU summit next week is the scheduled window to reach an agreement, and allow further progress onto the question of trade. The German Brexit co-ordinator is of the view that “a lot of progress” has been made in the last couple of days. As readers might recall from the December meeting, the model for all this is slow-slow-rush, by which deals are normally finalised at the last minute (not least to give an impression of being productive).
There’s some movement from the UK…
David Davis has said that he “could live with” the EU’s preferred shorter transition period of 21 months to Christmas 2020, rather than the Prime Minister’s original estimate of around two years. That might of course place extra pressure on UK administrative systems to be ready in time, but would also help to reassure the many Leavers (including this site) who have deep concerns about the risks of open-ended ‘transition’ crystallising into endless limbo.
…and, in return, from the EU.
Encouragingly, it is reported that Brussels has softened its stance to accept that the UK can negotiate and sign new trade deals during the transition period – an improvement for our trading prospects after we leave, and a sign that EU law will not hold quite the full authority some claimed during the transition. This had been a supposedly immovable red line, something ‘impossible’ for the allegedly rules-based EU structure to accommodate, and yet here it is, apparently being accepted by Barnier et al after all. Not for the first time, this is a reminder that when the British media, along with various strains of Continuity Remain opinion, get into an almighty flap by taking every statement from the EU as if it were carved into rock tablets, they are making a serious and naive mistake. This is a negotiation, and the EU often bends and disregards all sorts of supposedly immovable rules in order to get on with what it wants to do. British negotiators will want to seal in this permission next week.
Davis is pursuing his ‘national capitals’ strategy…
Another of the EU’s myths about itself is that all important things happen in Brussels and Strasbourg, as the members all speak with one voice. This was, we were told, the rationale for all talks taking place in Brussels, and having to go through Barnier and no-one else to get Brexit done. Davis has adopted the analysis that ConservativeHome espoused, which is that the EU institutions and the member states often have different and sometimes competing interests, and that while the Commission naturally held an early dominance of the process, it would be worth talking directly to member states as time went by. There were attempts to prevent this (which hinted that Brussels knew it could be effective), as well as somewhat hysterical claims that it simply could not take place, but the Government called those bluffs and simply went to talk to the relevant national governments.
Newsnight asked Davis about this approach in Bratislava yesterday, and he said that while his team were of course dealing with Barnier, “It’s the Council that make the decision on what our future partnership will be. That’s the Member States. The Council is made up of Member States. I will be going around talking to them, listening to their concerns, explain what we’ve got in mind, what we aim to do and understanding what their interests are and their concerns are. So we can incorporate that and make sure that we get the right decision.”
…just as Selmayr’s power-grab in Brussels threatens to shake apart some of the EU’s unity.
The EU institutions themselves have been rocked in the last few weeks by a sudden power-grab executed by Martin Selmayr, Juncker’s extremely ambitious sidekick. The ongoing backlash against his coup combines two dangerous arguments – the criticism of what many see either as a stitch-up combining the worst mix of Brussels cronyism and money (taxpayers’, naturally), or alternatively the feeling among other Eurocrats that his success threatens their own ambitions. While backroom deals to advance personal allies are a traditional part of the EU’s management culture, this row has become public and bitter to a degree which is quite rare. The full consequences are yet to be seen, but it’s certainly possible that this could harm the authority of Juncker and the Commission, and thereby free up the member states to get their own way rather more. Played right, that could be good news for the UK.