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Refocusing Brexit

The Brexit negotiations have not been making much progress. In part, that is because the British side has failed to understand that we were never going to get as good a deal as we had as a member.  There are potential leavers in most member states and a good deal for the UK would only encourage them. So Michel Barnier has no choice but to be tough with David Davis and it is misguided of the latter to complain about Barnier’s inflexibility.

Theresa May’s Florence speech last Friday signalled that she understood this. She recognised that the EU is beginning a new chapter in its development. Jean Claude Juncker’s vision for the EU points towards a United States of Europe and Mrs May knows that a majority of Britons don’t want to be part of that. Even if that vision is not adopted, she was right to observe that the EU has a serious democratic deficit that does not fit with the UK’s need for a more democratic political culture.

That said she was clear about wanting a close working relationship between the EU and the UK post Brexit. We face shared challenges from Russian, the flood of refugees into Europe and international crime and terrorism. “We are leaving the European Union but we are not leaving Europe”. Nevertheless, the terms on which we leave the EU still have to be negotiated and she proposed a two year transition period after 29thMarch 2019 so that both sides would have time to adapt to the new relationship, whatever that might be. She also wisely said that the UK would honour its financial commitments made during the time of our membership so that no other member would need to pay more in the current budget period to 2020.

First reactions to the speech were guardedly positive. It convinced Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, that “The philosophy of ‘having a cake and eating it’ is finally coming to an end” Even Michel Barnier saw a “constructive spirit” in the speech but he still needed answers to the three core issues of citizen’s rights, the Irish border and the Brexit divorce bill. Progress in the negotiations, in their fourth round this week, will only come when David Davis gives straight answers on these issues.

That is easier said than done. The citizens’ rights issue is the easiest to solve and because it also affects the rights of UK citizens in the EU, the case for meeting EU expectations is obvious. The Irish border issue is hugely complicated. The border between the Irish Republic (EU) and Northern Ireland (UK) is 300 miles long and there are 275 border crossings between them.  This compares with only 137 crossings in 3,700 miles of borders to the east of the EU and they do not have the historic Common Travel Area agreement the UK has with Ireland. The EU is willing to respect this Agreement and the Northern Ireland peace process but expects the UK to propose a solution.

The divorce bill is politically controversial because Brexiteers see no need for any payment. Theresa May did not state a figure in her speech but £18 billion is thought to match what she said. That would be too much for the Brexiteers but not enough for the EU. The former think we should simply walk away without a deal but that was not the Prime Minister’s position. We need access to the EU market or some of us will lose our jobs. We need to remain part of Europol and ECRIS for effective policing and we need to work closely with our European neighbours for mutual security in the face of Russian expansionism. The only beneficiary of us walking away from our allies in Europe would be Vladimir Putin.

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