It’s been a busy week for Brexit, with David Davis and Michel Barnier going head-to-head in Brussels, and Theresa May and Liam Fox heading to Japan to try and kick-start a trade deal. Here’s how the week unfolded:
1. UK-Japan trade deal lined up: In spite of predictions to the contrary, Theresa May won reassurance from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Britain would benefit from a facsimile version of the trade deal being negotiated between Japan and the EU. This could be the first of a series of ‘cut and paste’ bilateral trade deals which the government wants to establish with countries which already have trade agreements with the EU – to ensure that British exporters will continue to have favourable access to these markets immediately following Brexit.
2. While UK-EU talks stall: Rather less progress was evident on a trade deal between Britain and the EU. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier continued to insist that negotiations could not begin until Britain had agreed to pay a leaving bill – something to which the UK government has declined to commit itself. Barnier reiterated his demands that Britain must pay for programmes to which the EU has already committed itself, including aid projects in Africa, loans to Ukraine and even wildlife projects helping animals to cross roads in Europe. He added it ‘would not be fair’ if the burden for these projects was passed onto other EU countries.
3. Fox says UK won’t be ‘blackmailed’: Accompanying the Prime Minister on her two day visit to Japan was International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who ruffled feathers by saying that Britain ‘can’t be blackmailed’ into paying a bill for leaving the EU. Speaking in Brussels, Brexit secretary David Davis declined to say whether he approved of Fox’s language, but said:
‘We are a country that meets its international obligations and will continue to do so but those obligations have to be well specified and they have to be real. The Commission has set out its position and we have a duty to our taxpayers to interrogate it rigorously.’
4. No progress on Irish border: Nor was there much progress on the issue of the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland – which EU officials have also said must be settled before trade talks begin. The UK government published proposals for a ‘new and time-limited customs union between the UK and EU customs union based on a shared external tariff and without customs processes and duties between the UK and the EU’. It was less clear, however, what would happen in the longer term. For as long as it was in force, the arrangement could prevent Britain from enacting trade deals with countries outside the EU – thwarting one of the benefits for Britain of leaving the EU. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s lead co-ordinator on Brexit, dismissed the proposals as ‘fantasy’.
5. Some progress on EU nationals in UK: Elsewhere, though, there did seem to be some movement. The Home Office announced that it had made progress in negotiations of reciprocal rights to healthcare, for British citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living in Britain. It also said that the European Health Insurance Card system, which allows reciprocal rights for emergency health treatment would continue. Progress has also been made, it said, in guaranteeing the rights of UK citizens to set up and run businesses in other EU countries – and vice versa.
6. Labour split on soft Brexit: Labour’s policy on Brexit was further muddied by the suggestion from deputy leader Tom Watson that Britain could stay in the customs union and single market permanently – the so-called ‘soft Brexit’ which many Labour MPs favour but which is at odds with statements by Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell that Brexit would mean leaving the single market and customs union.
7. A kiss for Tony Blair: Tony Blair set up a meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in the same building where negotiations were taking place between the British and EU delegations. It included a very public photocall in which Juncker planted a kiss on Blair’s cheek, but it wasn’t clear what they discussed nor in what capacity they were meeting.