Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab was in Brussels for another meeting with the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier. However progress remains slow on the key issue of the Irish border and the prospect of no deal continues to overshadow the debate on Brexit both in the UK and in Brussels.
However the threat of a “no deal” has appeared to focus some minds in Brussels.
Up to now the choice on Ireland was one for the UK to decide between the unpalatable choice of erecting a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, (now effectively made illegal by amendments to the withdrawal bill which were approved by the House of Lords this week) or keeping the whole of the UK in the single market and customs union.
However a “no deal” scenario will force the EU to make an equally unpalatable choice. Does it force the Irish government to put up a hard border with Northern Ireland, against the wishes of the Irish government and against the terms of the Good Friday Agreement? Or does it impose a border between Ireland and the rest of the EU, fundamentally weakening Irish EU membership?
It is to avoid this choice that the EU has been so strong on demanding specifics on the Irish border before it will sign off the withdrawal deal allowing the UK to leave into the transition period. It is therefore the Irish border alone which will decide whether there is a deal or no deal in March next year.
At the moment the odds don’t appear to be good on this impasse being broken before the key Council of Ministers meetings in October and November, when a deal needs to be done. Brussels is renowned globally for its chocolate, but the EU is a world beater when it comes to fudging sticky political issues. It remains the most likely option that some very flexible fudge is agreed allowing the hard decisions to be delayed until the transition period.
The future trade agreement, whether it is Chequers, Canada +, Norway, EFTA or single market & customs union, will not be known until the UK leaves the EU, with negotiations taking place during the transition period. The political reality has meant that even the basic framework will not be agreed before the UK leaves, with reports this week that Germany and the UK are both prepared for only the most basic text, with as little detail as possible on the future trade to be included in the withdrawal agreement in order to avoid political opposition both in London and the continent.
So even after the exit date, Brexit talks will continue to dominate the news bulletins for some time.
However there needs to be some idea on what that relationship will be and for that, the clock is ticking – as the old adage goes – and the countdown is on to a meeting of EU leaders in Salzburg.
That is when the Prime Minister will try to make the case for her Chequers plan. This entails the UK observing EU rules on goods and agricultural products, but to be free from EU rules on services, allowing frictionless trade with the EU and avoiding a hard border in Ireland.
On the surface the EU is opposed to this as it doesn’t want ‘cherry-picking’ of the single market and it doesn’t trust the UK to collect customs tariffs on its behalf. British MPs from the Brexit committee left a meeting with Michel Barnier in Brussels this week claiming that he was 100% opposed to the proposals on these grounds.
Yet recent moves from Berlin & Paris and comments from senior EU commission officials suggest that EU opposition might not be quite so implacable. The Commission chief spokesman said there were “positive elements” to the plan. Whether it is enough to ensure an agreement that can be signed off by EU ministers at the Council meeting in November remains to be seen.
Even if the Prime Minister can get an agreement on the plan in Brussels without significant changes, she still faces the challenge of trying to get it passed at home, where the proposals also face significant opposition.
Meanwhile the implementation of Brexit-related policies continued in the UK with the government proposing a new agricultural seasonal workers scheme to ensure a supply of workers to pick Britain’s fruit and vegetables after Brexit when EU free movement is likely to end.
According to the National Farmers Union (NFU) only 0.6% of those who harvest Britain’s crops are British. The majority come from Eastern Europe but since the referendum fewer EU workers have come to the UK, even though they are currently able to without any checks. Post Brexit it is likely that the numbers will fall sharply if a full visa regime is brought in, as most of these jobs do not pay enough to qualify for existing visa schemes for non EU nationals.
The government’s new pilot visa scheme for non-EU workers aims to bridge that gap, allowing 2,500 seasonal workers to work for up to six months and replacing a similar scheme for Romanians and Bulgarians which ended five years ago when freedom of movement began for those countries.
However, unless more British workers can be persuaded to do these jobs, even this scheme may not be enough to plug the shortfall, given the fact that there are many more than 2,500 open vacancies for these jobs nationally. In the longer term, increased automation could help growers avoid a labour shortfall.
However, the technology is not there yet and therefore this sector, probably more than any other, highlights the challenges of getting a post Brexit immigration policy right. The government is preparing its overall immigration policy and will publish it later this Autumn. It will be keenly awaited by everyone and will go a long way to shape the post Brexit UK.