An ultimatum from Brussels, talk of a mutiny in the Commons on the EU Withdrawal Bill, and confirmation that Parliament will have a binding vote on the final exit deal before March 2019 - it has been a whirlwind few days for the Brexit process.
Last week’s Brexit talks between Michel Barnier and David Davis, the first in a month, ended on a dramatic note with the EU’s Chief Negotiator giving his counterpart two weeks to come up with clarity on how much the UK would pay the EU when it leaves. If it did not, Mr Barnier indicated he would not recommend sufficient progress had been made to enter into trade talks after the December council meeting. It really is reaching crunch time on the divorce bill now, and despite both sides saying nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, a form of deal is needed on the financial settlement for talks to progress. Quite what shape that takes is not clear at the time of writing.
Mr Davis also had a stark warning to Mr Barnier on the Ireland question after the Commission published a paper proposing that Northern Ireland would have to remain in the EU single market and customs union to avoid a hard border in Ireland. For the government, as Mr Davis reiterated, that proposal is simply unacceptable, posing a threat to the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom and risking creating an internal border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country, which would be in breach of the Good Friday agreement. It also makes little economic sense as Northern Ireland exports four times as much to the rest of the UK as it does to the Republic. It is clear that to ensure peace is preserved and respect the Good Friday agreement a unique solution is needed to solve the Irish border question, and that will not be found before December’s European Council meeting.
It was not all bad news from the two days of talks, with both sides agreeing that progress had been made on citizens’ rights, on which Mr Davis gave more details in his statement to the Commons on Monday. There remain outstanding issues around the “settled status” application process, which the EU and the European Parliament in particular worry could impose a significant cost burden on EU citizens resident in the UK. There is clearly more work to do on this, but both sides acknowledge the differences are not huge, and a registration process for all foreign citizens, including EU citizens, already exists in a number of EU countries, including Belgium. One area where the UK has outstanding demands is on voting rights, where the EU is currently stating it is unable to offer confirmation of UK citizens’ voting rights in EU 27 countries in future, whilst asking the UK to guarantee EU citizens similar rights. Similarly, the EU is not currently offering the UK the possibility for its citizens to move freely between EU27 countries after Brexit.
In his statement to the Commons the Brexit Secretary also confirmed that there would be a binding vote in the Commons on the final agreement between the EU and the UK in primary legislation, in effect allowing it to be amended. This commitment was welcomed by the opposition but it is clear that it would be very difficult for parliament to amend any deal without jeopardising the whole exit agreement. The separate EU Withdrawal Bill (previously called the Great Repeal Bill) also faces a difficult passage through parliament, with concerns about aspects of it across all sides of the House and many proposed amendments. The Bill aims to transpose all EU law into UK law in time for March 2019.
The EU Withdrawal Bill is one of, if not the, largest legislative project ever undertaken by the UK and such a mountainous amount of work needs to be completed in time for withdrawal. All sides agree that simply copying and pasting the EU law into UK law would not work as this would result in large parts of the text not making sense as they refer to EU institutions and not UK bodies. The contents of the bill pose big issues for the devolved assemblies, who would like to use the opportunity to transfer further powers from Westminster, and also impacts on the role of the European Court of Justice in any transition period, currently up for negotiation. Passing the bill in time and then ensuring the legislation is fit for purpose is a huge challenge for the government in the remaining 16 months before we leave the EU.
So we are now seeing some of the real details of the Brexit process being hammered out and a crunch point in the talks on finances, all of which demonstrate the immensely difficult job the government has in managing a smooth process and all the component players: parliament, the EU, devolved assemblies, etc. The next few weeks will be hugely significant in how the rest of the negotiation process plays out.