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Brexit after six months

It is six months since Theresa May triggered Article 50 to initiate negotiations for Britain to leave the EU, 25% of the time provided for this. The negotiations have begun but made little progress in the first three rounds. Three core issues have to be settled before Britain’s future relationship with the EU can be discussed and it seems unlikely those relations, including trade, will be on the agenda before next year.

The issues are the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the reciprocal rights of UK citizens in the EU; the divorce settlement; and the Irish border with the UK. So far there is little sign of agreement on any of them.

The divorce settlement is the most divisive of the three. Some Brexiteers argue that there is no legal basis for any payment. The EU disagrees and identifies four heads under which the UK is obliged to pay. First is the ongoing EU budget to 2020 for which the UK voted in 2014. This includes long-term infrastructure projects, some of which might be in the UK. The second is liabilities for loans to other member states which the UK backed, including Ireland and the Ukraine. The EU wants us to make funds available lest the recipients default. The funds would be repaid if the loans are repaid. The third item relates to pensions of EU officials employed whilst we were a member state. Some of them are for Britons who worked for the EU. Finally, there are two EU agencies currently based in the UK that have to be relocated after Brexit. The final sum will take account of the UK rebate and any sums the EU had allocated to be spent in the UK.

Wildly different sums have been broadcast, ranging from £30bn and £100bn but there is a fifth factor left out of the EU’s reckoning – Britain’s future relationship with the EU. Those who want us to have continuing access to the single market recognise that we should be prepared to pay more than the minimum. The refusal of the EU negotiator, working under instructions from the Council of Ministers, to discuss this until the UK agrees a financial settlement is not helping.

David Davis, the UK negotiator, has received scorching criticism but his opposite number, Michel Barnier is not beyond criticism. He is said to see the negotiations as an opportunity to “Teach the British people and others what leaving the EU means”.  It seems he sees us as poor neighbours walking away from a vision we once shared and wants to discourage other member states from following our lead. The deal we get must be less than we would enjoy as members to deter any other members from making their own exit.

Last week Parliament gave the Withdrawal Bill a Second Reading but issued a clear warning to the Government that the Bill would be defeated at Third Reading if some major changes are not made. These came from centrists in both major parties hostile to the use of Henry viii clauses allowing Ministers to amend this legislation without Parliament’s involvement.  There were also concerns about how the Courts would enforce the legislation if disputes arose once it was passed.

Theresa May will give a major speech in Florence about the EU and Brexit on Thursday (21st September) and we wait to see if she will offer answers to these outstanding obstacles. The clock is ticking and if she really wants the best deal for Britain now is the moment to offer those answers.

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