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This week’s briefing comes at a tipping point in Brexit history - the EU referendum was 505 days ago, and there’s 505 days left until we leave.
1) The Talks Have Started Again, But Don’t Expect Any Real Progress Yet
Ahead of the Brexit talks firing up again this week, David Davis paid a visit to some of his European counterparts.
The Brexit Secretary was keen to talk up the UK’s contribution to European security, and in Italy paid a visit to Operation Sophia HQ – the EU’s joint operation to clamp down on people smuggling in the Mediterranean.
During a trip to Poland, Davis visited the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Warsaw and also met with British troops stationed there.
The intention seemed to be to remind the EU of the historic and current role the UK military has played in the defence of the continent. But if Davis is hoping sepia-tinged memories of military victories will help kickstart the Brexit talks, he is massively overestimating the EU’s capacity for sentimentality.
As negotiators sat down in Brussels today – with Davis and his EU counterpart Barnier holding one of their infamous press conferences on Friday – it is still all about the cash.
Having told MPs last week the financial settlement was more likely to favour the EU than the UK, Davis kept his cards closer to his chest during his foreign trips.
Italian Junior Minister Sandro Gozi told Bloomberg: “He didn’t tell me anything specifically new on the financial aspects
Adding: “I told David Davis the next negotiation round will be very important, notably on the financial obligations.”
A major breakthrough is not expected in Brussels this week, but the tone of the press conference will be a key indication of whether the two sides are getting closer together or further apart.
2) Michel Barnier Is Digging In On The Trade Talks Already
The talks may not have turned to trade yet, but Michel Barnier is already making his side’s red lines clear.
In a speech in Rome today (Thursday), the Brussels’ chief negotiator warned the UK that merely aping the EU’s Single Market rules and regulations would not deliver the same trade arrangement it currently enjoys.
“You cannot be half in the single market and half out. You cannot want to put an end to the free movement of people while maintaining the free movement of goods, services or capital through a system of general equivalences. You cannot want to leave the internal market and continue to enact the rules. You cannot leave the Customs Union but want to benefit from a free trade with the European Union.”
The warning comes just days after Donald Trump’s most senior trade advisor, Wilbur Ross, told the UK that changing some of those regulations would be a “critical component” of any discussions between the two countries.
Speaking at the CBI conference on Monday, Ross said mimicking the EU’s regulations might “hinder development of a closer post-Brexit US-UK relationship”.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who is certainly more of a hawk on the issue of relaxing regulations, seems to have lost out to the more dovish Michael Gove in this area.
Fox told the BBC: “We have made very clear we are not going to see reductions in our standards as we move forward, partly because British consumers wouldn’t stand for it.”
Such an approach could see the UK’s trade policy caught between two stools. On the one hand aligning with the EU but having no power to change the rules it mimics, and on the other, unable to strike comprehensive free trade deals as it won’t budge on regulations.
The issue of Single Market access is likely to come up at Downing Street meeting on Monday involving Theresa May and a host of business leaders from the UK and Europe.
A spokesperson said: “Mrs May will reiterate the UK’s commitment to securing an implementation period of around two years once Britain leaves the EU in March 2019.”
3) The Government Can’t Work Out If It’s Done Lots Of Work On Brexit Or Not
Parliament’s attempt to get the Government to hand over its analyses of the impact Brexit will have on 58 sectors of the economy dragged rumbled on this week.
David Davis wrote to Brexit Select Committee chairman Hilary Benn on Monday saying it will take time for his department to bring together all the various documents from across Whitehall.
He also said his department needed “time to collate and bring together this information in a way that is accessible and informative for the Committee.”
Commons Speaker John Bercow was distinctly not impressed with the slow progress, and demanded a minister appear before MPs by close of play on Tuesday to explain what was going on.
Brexit Minister Steve Baker was sent out to bat, and said his department needed another three weeks to get the documents in order.
He claimed much of the work was now out-of-date, and the Government only wanted to hand over information “which is relevant and timely and correct.”
As if that didn’t infuriate opposition MPs enough, he then said the public would demand to know “whose side are you on?” for wanting the assessments to be published in the first place.
Labour MP Chris Bryant delivered a passionate rebuke to Baker: “It’s very simple – he has to hand them over to the Committee and he has to do so in a timely fashion. But he seems to think what he can do in the meantime is rewrite all of these documents because they’re not good enough. That is not good enough.”
Davis and Benn are set to meet on Monday to discuss the next moves.
4) The SNP and Scottish Tories Could Be About To Give May A Massive Headache
The Commons row over the Government’s internal Brexit work is a mere starter compared to the main course of the committee stage of the EU Withdrawal Bill, set to be debated by MPs next week.
The amendments selected to be debated will be most likely be revealed on Monday, with MPs to be scrutinising them on Tuesday.
But while all eyes are on Westminster, there is an interesting sub-plot emerging north of the border.
MSP Adam Tomkins, a close ally of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, this week called for the vast majority of the 111 laws set to return to the UK after Brexit which touch on devolved matters to be transferred directly to Holyrood.
The SNP has called the retention of those powers in Whitehall a “power grab” and want them all devolved instantly.
The stand-off could see Holyrood, and the Assembly in Cardiff, voting down the Withdrawal Bill, leading to one of those constitutional crises we’re all terrified of.
Writing in The Scotsman, Tomkins said: “What we now need is rapid progress on the negotiations over frameworks, That is what matters to businesses on the ground in Scotland, that is what will have a real-life impact on people here. Looking at the substance of the 111 powers, many can safely be devolved without further ado; why aviation noise, for example, would need to come under a UK-wide framework I do not know. But there are some – a small number in important policy areas – where some sort of common framework will be needed.”
This intervention is important because the Scottish Tories really are the tail that wags the dog at the moment. Without the 13 MPs Davidson helped return to Westminster in June, Theresa May would not be in Downing Street – and she knows it.
It will be interesting to see whether Downing Street concedes on this point. If they do, it gives the SNP another route to influencing UK politics. Pressure on the Tories in Edinburgh leads directly to changes in London.
Don’t Get Angry, Get Blogging…
At HuffPost we love a good blog, and here are the finest Brexit-penned entries from this week. Have a read, and if any of them provoke an urge in you to speak your brain, send a blog to firstname.lastname@example.org and you could find yourself in this very newsletter.
Dr Lindsay Richards asked 5,000 members of the public how much they’d pay in an ‘EU divorce bill’
Barney Pell Scholes on why the government doesn’t have the right to hide Brexit impact reports from the public
Joe Mitton on what happens next for EU institutions based in Britain
Baroness Jenny Jones on why a ‘hard Brexit’ would make Lords reform a necessity