This week has seen a lull in high-level Brexit talks between the UK and the EU, although technical negotiations took place on the withdrawal agreement behind the scenes. The European Parliament debated and voted on a new resolution on Brexit, looking at the future relationship, and I visited Gibraltar to hear about the effect of Brexit on them and the lessons from their border with the EU Customs Union. Meanwhile, the EU expressed solidarity with the UK in the wake of the suspected Russian nerve agent attack in Salisbury.
Anyone who picked Israel in the Brexit word bingo had a lucky week this time, after months of nothing but a Norway or a Canada Brexit in the news, an Israel Brexit option was put on the table. This is not significantly different to the Ukraine Brexit option. It involves an overarching association agreement covering not just trade but defence and security and access to EU research funding. At Tuesday's European Parliament debate the EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier indicated a willingness on the EU27 side to consider an Israel option and similar noises have come from London. Ultimately the Israel headline is just that, a headline, both sides had already committed to an ambitious future relationship going well beyond trade. Like Norway and Canada before it, Israel is another example of politicians attempting to explain deeply complex international negotiations in sound bites, even as the meanings get confused by the speakers themselves as well as the general public. International negotiations are by their very nature slow and somewhat secretive, but on an issue as fundamental to the future of Britain and Europe the news media continues to require daily headlines, however unrelated to reality they may be, and politicians themselves have also got sucked up into that game, causing many apparent bumps in the Brexit talks over the last year.
If the Parliament's debate set off another round of headlines to feed the Brexit media beast, the resolution it voted contained mixed messages for the UK. Whilst there was welcome support for a close and effective trading, security and research partnership, and a hint of supporting UK cooperation with EU agencies, it also continued to push for UK membership of the single market and customs union, despite knowing that the UK government has ruled this out. The Parliament will have a vote on the final deal, but the effect of most of its pronouncements over the last two years has been to side-line itself from the negotiations, with neither the UK nor the EU27 prepared to accept all the Parliament's self-set red lines.
Meanwhile, behind the public glare, whilst Mr Barnier was in Strasbourg on Tuesday his team were in Brussels meeting with British officials to discuss a raft of issues relating to the withdrawal agreement. Very little detail normally comes out of these meetings until their contents are disclosed when the two principals, Michel Barnier and David Davis, meet to confirm agreement on the items discussed. What is known is that the financial settlement and citizens' rights were discussed, likely to cover the timing and nature of UK payments to the EU and discussions on the practicalities of EU citizens' acquiring settled status in the UK after Brexit. Intriguingly, at a higher coordinator level, Ireland and Northern Ireland. Given the EU's remarks that the Ireland question needed to be resolved before talks could progress on other areas, it is likely that the two sides are attempting to flesh out a compromise away from the spotlight.
I visited Gibraltar last week to meet with government and customs officials to look at the impact of Brexit on the Rock and what can be learned about a future EU-UK border from the situation there. Gibraltar is outside the Customs Union, but it is not a great example for future EU-UK cooperation. There is a hard border in Gibraltar, with facial and vehicle number plate recognition and a customs post staffed with border officials, which would be difficult to introduce in Ireland. However there are less overt solutions and methods customs officers in Gibraltar are already using to link technology with targeted action against smuggling and other illicit activity, in a way that can deliver results. The opportunity for intelligent use of technology as part of a wider approach towards customs and border management is there, though it may take some time to introduce.
One of the main lessons from Gibraltar is on cooperation, and the missed opportunities due to the difficult relationship with Gibraltar’s immediate neighbour. Significant problems are regularly caused by frictions at the border, particularly for people and cars going to Spain; 13,000 people live in Spain but work in Gibraltar, so delays on the border cause traffic chaos for miles. This cripples Gibraltarian business, but also threatens delivery of essential public services like healthcare and education. As the UK and EU strive for a new agreement, one of the most critical things needed is a legal method to guarantee good cooperation between the two sides, wherever the border crossing may be, to ensure citizens of both sides do not lose out.
As the UK responded to the use of a nerve agent in an attack on a Russian defector living in Salisbury, and set out its case against the Russian government, EU allies were swift to join the condemnation and express solidarity. It was an important reminder of the vital common security aims we still share, and will continue to share after Brexit. Close security cooperation will remain essential as all of Europe becomes increasingly concerned about the Russian threat to stability on the continent, as now repeatedly demonstrated by interference in European elections and criminal actions on European territory.
So, hopefully that mood of solidarity can help the Brexit talks continue in an atmosphere of good will, many of the practical and economic challenges of Brexit can be overcome or lessened with political will on both sides, which is what the UK government and many on the EU27 side have been pushing for.