Top 3 developments
- Davis causes a stir by briefly claiming Parliament will not get a vote on final Brexit deal.
- FAZ leaks in wake of EU Summit undermine May’s strength.
- PM Ministers begin weeks of diplomatic charm offensive, as DExEU delays commitment to next round of talks.
Davis causes a stir
Brexit Secretary David Davis was forced to issue a statement clarifying comments he made before the Brexit Select Committee yesterday. During the two-hour grilling Davis implied that Parliament may not get a vote on the final Brexit deal until after March 2019, because an agreement with Brussels may not be complete until the last minute. He said, “it’s no secret that the way the union makes its decisions tends to be at the 59th minute of the 11th hour of the last day. That’s precisely what I would expect to happen here”. However, the Prime Minister appeared to contradict Davis a few hours later in PMQs; she said, “I’m confident… that we will be able to achieve that deal in time for Parliament to have the vote that we committed to”. A few hours later, DExEU published a statement in line with the Prime Minister’s comments, saying the Government “expects and intends” that Parliament will get to have its say before March 2019.
Davis fails to commit to next round of talks
David Davis is yet to fix a date for the next round of Brexit talks with Brussels – despite a commitment from both sides to “accelerate” negotiations. Barnier’s team have suggested three sets of dates before the crunch EU Summit in mid-December; this week, mid-November, and immediately before the 14th-15th Summit. However, Davis has not yet committed to any dates. A DExEU spokesperson said, “we remain in discussions with the EU task force and will jointly set out in due course a mutually agreed timetable for negotiations that give both sides the best opportunity to build on the momentum of previous rounds and make further progress”. The delay could be down, in part, to the Government’s intensive diplomatic charm offensive planned for the next few weeks (see below).
Hammond refuses to commit to quick transition deal
Chancellor Philip Hammond has been unable to confirm that any progress towards a transitional agreement can be made by Christmas – despite calls from businesses and industry leaders. Nonetheless, Hammond tried to reassure businesses that the Government is seeking to agree the key principles of a transition period as soon as possible. He reiterated that it is “urgent and pressing” for the Government. His comments come after the Prime Minister unsettled business leaders on Monday by saying a transitional deal would not be agreed until the UK has settled its final relationship with the EU – which would not be until next summer at the earliest. The Chancellor said, “last week at the European council, the 27 agreed to start internal preparatory discussions on guidelines in relation to an implementation period. Together with broad support for the idea in parliament, this should give British businesses confidence we are going to provide them with the certainty they require”.
May to go over Barnier’s head with diplomacy offensive
The Prime Minister, her most senior aides, and Ministers are to engage in a diplomatic charm offensive in the seven weeks to December’s European Council meeting. May and her team will meet with individual EU leaders in their respective capitals, bypassing EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. The Government hopes to convince EU leaders to loosen Barnier’s negotiating mandate for phase two of the talks, so that negotiations can progress to the future terms of trade. Crispin Blunt, the former chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said it was a “happy accident” that the seven-week window before the December European Council would allow for “two months of private diplomacy around the future deep and comprehensive trade agreement”.
FAZ leaks damaging reports of May
Any positive developments to be taken from last week’s EU Summit were somewhat overshadowed by leaks which claimed the Prime Minister “begged for help” from Juncker, and described her as “anxious, despondent and discouraged”. The report emerged in German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (or FAZ, the same outlet which leaked details of May’s Brexit dinner last April). FAZ reported, “Merkel, Macron and Juncker could not be softened… All three insisted on further progress, especially on the sensitive issue of money, before there could be direct talks about the future. Brexit was not wanted and they could not solve the problems of the British for them, they said dryly in the chancellor’s office”. The paper also claims that, contrary to No. 10’s claims, the dinner with Juncker was arranged “at the last minute” and at May’s request. The leak prompted a flurry of finger pointing, with May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy accusing Juncker’s powerful advisor Martin Selmayr of being behind it, having been widely acknowledged as the source of the leaks which followed a previous May/Juncker dinner in April. Timothy tweeted, “After constructive Council meeting, Selmayr does this. Reminder that some in Brussels want no deal or a punitive one”, to which Selmayr responded, “this is false… Juncker & I have no interest in weakening the PM”. The source of the leak remains disputed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was reported to have been “furious” about the leak. According to sources, she is concerned that the removal may could throw the whole negotiation process into further disarray; “the last thing she wants is for Theresa May to be replaced in the middle of the negotiations”.
The leak also caused subsequent articles to be published claiming May has been in a similarly “stricken and stunned” condition for weeks. A Times article read, “on one occasion she sat in silence for almost 10 minutes while the visitor she had invited to see her waited for her to lead the conversation. He left the meeting deciding she no longer wanted to be Prime Minister”. However, Downing Street has been supported by Juncker in pushing back against the unflattering depiction of May. Speaking to the German press, Juncker said, “nothing is true in all of this. I had an excellent working dinner with Theresa May. She was in good shape, she was not tired, she was fighting as is her duty so everything for me was ok”. Asked whether she had “pleaded” with him over getting Brexit progress, he added, “no, that’s not the style of British Prime Ministers”.
Finance blocks progress at EU Summit
The Prime Minister has said “important progress” was made during last week’s EU Summit, claiming that “clear commitments” on the UK’s financial settlement and reassurance that EU nationals in the UK will not face “bureaucratic hurdles”, has helped move talks forward. Yet, some in Brussels – especially French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel – remain adamant that May must make a “firm and concrete commitment” to increase her initial €20bn offer. Macron said, “we need to have a complete approach to [the UK’s] financial commitments and in that regard we haven’t done half the journey”. Macron is reportedly seeking a €40bn settlement. Nonetheless, in an update to the House of Commons on Monday, May said she is waiting for the EU to decide what future relationship it wants with the UK post-Brexit; though critics have dismissed this as an attempt to postpone an internal party showdown over the shape of a Brexit deal. Downing Street has refused to confirm or deny reports claiming the Prime Minister will defer a cabinet decision on the Brexit deal until the start of next year.
Brussels content with 20-month transition period
Comments made by Barnier and his team suggest that Brussels would be happy to limit any Brexit transition period to 20 months – meaning that the UK would leave the bloc in December 2020. Reports suggest that, though no decision has yet been taken, Brussels is inclined towards the December 2020 deadline because it would coincide with the end of the EU’s seven-year budget. Earlier this week Barnier said, “to my mind, it makes sense that it covers the financial period, so until 2020”.
Tusk calls for unity
European Council President Donald Tusk has told European leaders that they must stay united in response to Brexit, or face “defeat”. Tusk’s comments were somewhat more aggressive than usual, and come as the rhetoric surrounding the negotiations heats up (with Philip Hammond calling Brussels “the enemy” a few weeks ago). Referring to the UK’s departure from the EU as the bloc’s “toughest stress test”, Tusk reiterated that the Union must not be divided. He said, “we must keep our unity regardless of the direction of the talks… The EU will be able to rise to every scenario as long as we are not divided”. Tusk also entertained the possibility of Brexit being halted, saying “it is in fact up to London how this will end: with a good deal, no deal or no Brexit; though this prompted a swift response from London, with a No. 10 spokesperson responding, “Brexit is not going to be reversed”.
Barnier confirms plans to step down
Michel Barnier has confirmed that work has begun on the EU’s Brexit treaty, and that he will quit his position as chief negotiator before trade talks with the UK are complete. Barnier also played down the prospect of a no-deal scenario, telling European journalists, “I am convinced a path is possible as long as we de-dramatize the discussion. My team are already starting work on a draft of the treaty for the exit of the UK from the EU”. Barnier said any UK-EU trade deal would take “several years” to complete, but that he will leave shortly after the UK’s departure in March 2019. Barnier’s stepping down would coincide with the end of Juncker’s term as European Commission President. He said after his resignation from the negotiating role, he would “see where I can still make myself useful in the EU”.
- 13th November – EU (Withdrawal) Bill returns to the Commons
- 14th – 15th December – EU Council Summit
- 22nd – 23rd March – EU Council Summit
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