Road to Brexit #1: June 2017

(Title image: University of Cambridge)

Here’s the first in a series of posts – one in each edition – covering key events in the ongoing Brexit process which is set to run until Spring 2019.

The Negotiations Start; Ireland proves to be a sticking point

19th June marked the start of the formal Brexit negotiation process. The UK’s chief negotiator – David Davis MP – met with the EU’s chief negotiator – former French cabinet member, Michel Barnier. There was no Welsh representation.

The goal of the meeting was to decide what will be negotiated and when. Separate priority negotiating groups have been established to cover:

  • Citizens’ rights
  • The Financial Settlement (aka. Brexit “Divorce Bill”)
  • Other separation issues

Dialogue over Northern Ireland (because of the land border) has also started.

A meeting will be held roughly every 4 weeks until each of the key discussion areas listed earlier are covered. This initial round is expected to last until 9th October (5 meetings including the 19th June one).

The second meeting, held on 20th July, saw the two negotiating parties present their detailed positions. After the meeting, Michel Barnier asked the UK team to clarify its position on the Common Travel Area (border-free movement between the UK and Ireland) and the future of the Good Friday Agreement at the next meeting, which is scheduled for August.

The situation regarding Ireland has become complicated with reports the Irish Government are seeking to move the border to the Irish Sea, which would mean customs checks for movements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Any move towards that would almost certainly anger the DUP (whose core belief is that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK) and probably destabilise the UK Government in the process.


White Paper on post-Brexit EU citizen rights published

As mentioned, one of the most important items for negotiation will be the status of EU citizens living and working in the UK – estimated to number around 3.2million, more than the population of Wales. There are also around 1.2million UK citizens living and working in the EU.

A new paper was published by the UK Government on June 26th (here). The outline proposals are that:

  • Freedom of movement between the EU and UK (and vice versa) will end.
  • EU citizens who’ve lived in the UK for five straight years (prior to March 2017) will have the right to apply to remain in the UK indefinitely. This means they’ll be able to work without restriction, access welfare and public services, bring dependent family members into the UK to live and apply for UK citizenship.
  • EU citizens who don’t qualify for the above (i.e. have lived in the UK for three continuous years instead of five) will be able to apply for temporary status until they’ve lived here for five years, after which they can apply for indefinite leave to remain.
  • EU citizens who’ve arrived after March 2017 will be allowed to remain for a temporary period but should have no expectation of being granted indefinite leave to remain.
  • Negotiations will take place on retaining a scheme similar to the EU Health Insurance Card – which enables free health care for the holder.
  • EU students who start university courses in the UK before the 2018-19 academic year will continue to be considered “home students”.
  • UK citizens living in the EU will have to seek a similar right to remain/settled status.

Michel Barnier later claimed on July 12th that there was still a lot of difference between the UK and EU views on the matter, believing the European Court of Justice (ECJ) must maintain its jurisdiction in order for rights to be properly guaranteed.

Hard Brexit it is?

On June 26th, the UK House of Commons voted by 322-101 to reject an amendment to the Queen’s Speech debate calling for the UK to remain within the EU single market. 49 Labour MP’s rebelled against Jeremy Corbyn’s demand to abstain, while all MPs from Plaid Cymru, SNP, Greens and Lib Dems backed the motion.

What this means is any hope for a “Soft Brexit” – whereby the UK would retain most of the perks of EU membership without actually being a member, like membership of the single market – is as good as dead.

That means unless the UK can negotiate a free trade deal in the remaining less than two years until Brexit, tariffs are likely to be applied to UK exports to the EU and vice versa – something the First Minister has long said he doesn’t want to see happen.

UK Ministers demand EU pharmaceutical “arrangement”

The English Health Minister, Jeremy Hunt and Business Minister, Greg Clark, penned a joint letter to the Financial Times calling for the UK to see a deal/collaboration with the EU in the pharmaceutical industry.

At present, the EU Medicines Agency is responsible for the scientific testing of new medicines and approval for use in member states; it’s up to individual member states on whether they want to allow their use or not.

If the UK were forced to develop its own regulatory regime, major pharmaceutical companies may be more reluctant to trial or sell new, cutting edge, medicines in the smaller UK market.

The EU Medicines Agency is already set to move from its headquarters in London, with a decision on where to relocate due to be announced in October 2017. Dublin, Barcelona and Bucharest are all said to be in the running.

Senedd will get a say on “Brexit Bill”, but constitutional crisis talk rumbles on

The Brexit Bill (aka. Great Repeal Bill) was introduced at Westminister on July 13th to ensure EU laws no longer apply to the UK and end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. However, all existing EU laws will be copy and pasted into UK law to keep things going as normal. It’ll then be down to politicians to change, scrap or amend these laws as they see fit.

A big bone of contention has been where the devolved administrations fit because many EU laws affect devolved powers – like the environment and agriculture. If the UK Parliament tried to “grab” these powers for themselves it would cause a constitutional crisis.

After the Bill was published, the Scottish and Welsh governments jointly described it as a “naked power-grab”, claiming the Bill won’t return EU powers in devolved areas to the devolved nations, adding that they can’t support the Bill as it is. Expect that to come to a head in the autumn when it’s expected the Welsh Government may introduce their own version of the “Repeal Bill” and prompt a showdown with Westminster.

The UK Brexit Secretary announced the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies and Scottish Parliament will have to give their consent to the Repeal Bill, but none of the devolved nations can block Brexit either. So although that move has been welcomed by the Scottish and Welsh governments, it appears to be nothing more than window dressing and a courtesy.

UK Cabinet “backs transitional deal”

On 21st July, there were reports that the UK Cabinet were “united” on the need to secure a transitional deal once Brexit negotiations are complete. This was later backed by comments from Liam Fox, who suggested such a deal could last until the next scheduled UK general election in 2022.

A transitional deal – which would likely see the UK retain a detached membership of the EU for a few years before fully leaving the EU – is seen as essential to provide assurances to businesses about things like free trade/the single market and give the UK and EU enough time to finalise a stand along post-Brexit free trade agreement and establish things like new UK customs agreements and border controls.