Although Theresa May has repeatedly assured us that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, we’re still no closer to finding out what that actually means. The Prime Minister has done her best to play hardball in talks with other European leaders, having told Angela Merkel that control over free movement was an issue she would deliver on. But the fighting talk doesn’t actually mean much in practice. At least not yet anyway. And like it or not, one man who will play a key role in Brexit negotiations, Jean-Claude Juncker, is making it clear he’s not going to lie down and accept compromise on free movement. Here’s what he had to say:
‘There will be no access to the internal market for those who do not accept the rules – without exception or nuance – that make up the very nature of the internal market system.’
It’s not surprising that Juncker is taking such a hard line over this. He has been heavily criticised in the wake of the referendum for appearing to gloat about the Brexit vote and there was even suggestion from a senior figure in the German government that Angela Merkel could look to try and oust Juncker, who she now reportedly believed was a ‘part of the problem’. So far, that hasn’t happened and Juncker is clearly trying to shore up his position with the tenacity and doggedness for which he has become known. But what’s more worrying for May is that Juncker doesn’t see his stance as being that tough at all; instead, for him, ‘it’s not a hard line, it’s just common sense’. And momentum around his perspective is clearly building: Hollande might have made several concessions to May on her visit to Paris but he was also clear that the choice was to stay in the single market and accept free movement, or have neither.
It doesn’t take much to realise that both sides can’t get what they want from this. It emerged earlier this week that one plan was to grant Britain an ’emergency brake’ on EU migration for seven years – a deal that sounds good in the short term but, in fact, does nothing to solve for good the question on which the referendum outcome was decided: what to do about immigration. Talk of an emergency brake also brings back memories of David Cameron’s deal in February when he won a similar promise on migrant benefits and was left trying to sell a measly deal to the British people. If Juncker’s warning on free movement is anything to go on, we could be heading full circle.