Brexit, Borders, and lack of progress – news round-up.

Brexit negotiations: round four

Brexit: Fresh round of negotiations to take place [BBC News]

Brexit: Davis sees ‘no excuse for standing in way of progress’ [BBC News] The fourth round of Brexit negotiations commenced this week. This was the first opportunity for the EU delegation to respond to Theresa May’s recent speech in Florence.

As talks commenced, the EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, called for a “moment of clarity” from the UK. Mr Barnier said the process had been going six months and progress on key separation issues was essential. Mr Barnier said he was “keen and eager” for the UK to translate the “constructive” sentiments in Mrs May’s recent Florence speech into firm negotiating positions on issues such as citizens’ rights, the Irish border and financial issues, including the UK’s so-called divorce bill.

He issued a reminder that the UK was “six months into the process” and “we are getting closer to the UK’s withdrawal.”

Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, said he hoped for progress on all fronts – but made clear any agreement on financial matters could only be reached in the context of the UK’s future partnership with the EU. He said there were “no excuses for standing in the way of progress”.

About progress…

Brexit: Donald Tusk says not enough progress in talks [BBC News]

Donald Tusk: ‘No sufficient progress yet’ in Brexit talks [POLITICO EU] European Council President Donald Tusk has said not enough progress has been made to move to the next phase of Brexit talks in Brussels. Speaking after talks with Prime Minister Theresa May, Mr Tusk said: “I feel now we will discuss our future relations with the UK once there is so-called sufficient progress. The two sides are working and we will work hard at it. But if you ask me and if today member states ask me, I would say there is no sufficient progress yet. But we will work on it.”

Mr Tusk’s comments come barely a month before the European Council will decide whether sufficient progress has been made to begin trade talks, as the UK wants. If it is determined that ‘sufficient progress’ has not been made, the EU’s negotiators will be directed to continue focusing the negotiations on the issues of citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Northern Irish border. They will not allowed to move to discussions about a transition period or the future trade relationship sought by the UK.

Northern Ireland and the border: round four

Brexit: Northern Ireland and Irish border on talks agenda [BBC News NI] Northern Ireland and the Irish border were discussed at the Brexit negotiations on Wednesday. Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, said UK and EU negotiators will be “crunching through the technical detail” of the Good Friday peace agreement and the Common Travel Area (CTA).

Meanwhile, the view south of the border…

Leo Varadkar: ‘Too early’ to assess Brexit progress [BBC News] Prime Minister Theresa May met Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in London for talks on Brexit and Northern Ireland’s political deadlock. During her recent speech in Florence, Mrs May had reiterated the UK’s position that there would be no hard Irish border after Brexit. Although the UK will be leaving both the customs union and the single market, she said that both the UK and EU had “stated explicitly” they would not accept any “physical infrastructure”. Speaking after the talks, Mr Varadkar said he had encouraged Mrs May to be “more specific” about her view of the future UK-Irish relationship. He added that he thought it was too early to determine whether the UK has made sufficient progress during the Brexit negotiations.

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News round-up: Brexit, Island of Ireland, and UK responsibility.

Welcome to the Houses of the Oireachtas

There will be a special meeting of the several committees with Guy Verhofstadt MEP, the European Parliament’s Brexit Coordinator, this morning from 10:30am.

The committees meeting Mr Verhofstadt for engagement are: Joint Committee on European Union Affairs meeting with the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, and the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Further shores

In his address, Mr Verhofstadt reiterated that “the Irish border and all things related are a priority for negotiations” for the EU. The “unique solution” to Brexit issues in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of the UK government, which must consider the Good Friday Agreement. He suggested Northern Ireland could continue to be in the customs union and the single market post-Brexit as way to prevent a hard border on the island.

Mr Verhofstadt concluded his address with a lovely Seamus Heaney quote: “believe that a further shore is reachable from here.”

Brexit expedition

Mr Verhofstadt is on the second day of a two-day Brexit fact-finding mission on the island of Ireland. He met Northern Irish political party leaders on Wednesday, and will meet the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on today.

Guy Verhofstadt: UK must find ‘unique’ Irish border solution [Politico EU]

Yesterday, Mr Verhofstadt said the UK had the responsibility to find a “unique solution” to the border issue. He suggested that Northern Ireland could continue to be in the customs union and the single market after Brexit as a way to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland – but this was a decision for the UK.

All eyes on Theresa

A special cabinet meeting at Downing Street this morning will give its formal backing to Prime Minister Theresa May’s landmark Brexit speech, which she will deliver in Florence tomorrow.

But remember: devolution revolution

Scottish and Welsh governments set out Brexit bill amendments [BBC News]

This week, Scottish and Welsh governments published proposals for amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon and First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones said the Bill is a “power grab” of devolved responsibilities. Writing to the Prime Minister, they said their amendments would allow the bill to “work with, not against, devolution”.

News round-up: EU Withdrawal Bill, Northern Ireland, and Parliamentary sovereignty

Parliamentary sovereignty:

Tories’ £1bn DUP deal will need parliament’s approval [Politics Home]

The breaking news today sees a hurdle for the UK Government to pass. The UK Government has had to concede that its confidence and supply agreement with the DUP – which includes £1bn of funding for Northern Ireland – must have Parliamentary authorisation. In response to a letter from Gina Miller, and the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain who had challenged the deal’s legality, the Treasury solicitor, confirmed that the offer “will have appropriate parliamentary authorisation” and that as yet “no timetable has been set for the making of such payments”.

Stormont Stalemate addressed:

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’s speech to 2017 British Irish Association Conference [NIO] Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, spoke at a recent meeting of the British-Irish Association in Cambridge. He spoke of the need to “see a fully functioning, power sharing devolved government at Stormont”, “need to address legacy issues”, and the “necessity of making a success of Brexit, to which the UK Government is fully committed.” Addressing the current political impasse at Stormont, Mr Brokenshire said “the situation simply is not sustainable and if it is not resolved within a relatively short number of weeks will require greater political decision making from Westminster.” He added that this would have to begin with legislation to provide Northern Ireland with a Budget.

More from the British-Irish Association meeting:

Simon Coveney urges UK to remain in Customs Union [BBC News NI] The Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, urged the UK government to consider remaining in a customs union with the EU after Brexit. He said he found it “difficult to accept” that the option should be ruled out before negotiations on trade have even begun.

Micheál Martin calls for NI to be ‘special economic zone’ [BBC News NI] The leader of Ireland’s main opposition party suggested that Northern Ireland should become part of a “special economic zone” (SEZ). Micheál Martin said Northern Ireland as a SEZ could be recognised by the EU as being “distinct from the rest of the UK in terms of single market and customs union access.”

Parliamentary Corner:

Brexit: Ministers warn of ‘chaos’ if repeal bill rejected [BBC News]

Voting against EU bill means ‘chaotic’ Brexit, claims David Davis [Politics Home]

  • The Commons will hold a special late-night sitting tonight as MPs cast their first votes on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. MPs will debate until midnight, before holding a series of votes on the bill’s second reading. Both sides expect a narrow win for the UK Government, with potential Tory rebels holding fire until the bill’s eight-day committee stage – due to start next month. In a statement issued overnight by the Department for Exiting the European Union, Secretary of State David Davis said those voting against the bill want “a chaotic exit from the European Union.” Labour says it will oppose the bill, claiming it represents a “power grab”.
  • Mr Davis said: “The British people did not vote for confusion and neither should Parliament…Providing certainty and stability in the lead up to our withdrawal is a key priority. Businesses and individuals need reassurance that there will be no unexpected changes to our laws after exit day and that is exactly what the Repeal Bill provides.”
  • The UK Government faces pressure from all sides of the House. MPs on all sides have raised concerns that Ministers are giving themselves too much power through so-called Henry VIII clauses, which allow them to change legislation after it has passed through Parliament.
  • Conservative whips are not the only ones facing a headache this evening/Tuesday morning. Some Labour MPs are hardcore Brexiteers, and will want to support the Withdrawal Bill – which would be in defiance of Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s imposed three-line whip.
  • Mr Corbyn’s authority might also face another challenge over the Bill. The question remains if any of the MPs from Brexit-supporting constituencies who, worried by Labour’s new-found ‘soft’ Brexit and the reaction to it from Labour-voting Brexiteers, might abstain on the vote.
  • The Commons will also vote to approve nominations for Select Committee membership today. The real drama re Committee membership is yet to come: the Committee of Selection’s membership approval vote takes place on Tuesday. The Conservative Government is facing accusations it is attempting a ‘power grab’.

EU corner

This week is about European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the European Union (SOTEU) speech, on Wednesday 13th September.

The Committee on Constitutional Affairs in the European Parliament will today discuss proposals to reduce the number of MEPs to 700 after the next election, keeping the remaining 51 in reserve for a possible pan-EU list of MEPs.

Publication on EU Brexit position paper on Ireland/Northern Ireland

The European Commission today published its Brexit position paper on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

The ‘Guiding principles transmitted to EU27 for the Dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland‘ paper contains the guiding principles of the EU position on the issue of Ireland/Northern Ireland post-Brexit and is to be presented to the UK in the context of the dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

Notably, the EU is taking the position that the responsibility to devise the flexible and imaginative solutions necessary to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland rests with the UK Government. There is a strong emphasis on the GFA, and maintaining the Peace Process.

Emphasising the ‘unique circumstances’ of Northern Ireland, the paper does not suggest solutions for the Irish border. It notes that the onus to propose solutions which’ overcome the challenges created on the island of Ireland by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and its decision to leave the customs union and the internal market remains on the UK.’

The paper outlines:

  • that as an essential element of the withdrawal process, there needs to be a political commitment to protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, to protecting the gains of the peace process, and to the practical application of this on the island of Ireland,
  • ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’ are required which must respect the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland, and avoid the imposition of a hard border,
  • North South cooperation between Ireland and Northern Ireland is a central part of the Good Friday Agreement and should be protected,
  • the UK should ensure that no diminution of rights is caused by the its departure from the EU,
  • the Withdrawal Agreement should respect rights, opportunities and identity that come with EU citizenship for the people of Northern Ireland who choose to assert their right to Irish citizenship,
  • that the continued operation of the Common Travel Area is fundamental to facilitating the interaction of people in Ireland and the UK and should be recognised, and
  • the EU has supported the Peace Process through  PEACE, INTERREG etc. Therefore the UK and the EU need to honour their commitments under the current Multi-annual Financial Framework.

Barnier/Davis hold press conference after second round of Brexit talks

Speaking after four days of negotiations, the Chief Negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, today said there has been no “decisive progress” on the key issues in the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

Opening the joint press conference this afternoon, Mr Barnier noted that at the beginning of the week he publicly voiced his concern at the pace of and (lack of) progress in the talks. He warned that “time is passing quickly”, noting that on the 29th March 2019, at the stroke of midnight, the UK will officially leave the EU.

Mr Barnier queried whether an organised “properly, orderly exit for the UK” would take place, or would the UK exit without an agreement. He said it was in the interests of Europe for the UK to leave with an established agreement.

Mr Barnier said firmly that UK demands regarding access to the Single Market were “impossible”. Worryingly for the UK Government, who are keen to start discussing future trade arrangements, he said he was “quite far” from being able to say to EU leaders in October that sufficient progress has been made to move the talks on at that point to cover the future trade relationship. As protecting the integrity of the single market is central to his mandate, the Single Market “must not and will not be undermined by Brexit”.

Concluding his remarks, Mr Barnier said that this week it had become clear that the UK does not accept that it needs to recognise its financial obligations after Brexit. He noted that, going forward, he is prepared to intensify negotiations.

Following the EU’s Chief Negotiator, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, spoke of “concrete progress” in a number of areas but added there was some way yet to go.

Mr Davis said the UK’s approach has been informed by a series of detailed papers, offering pragmatic solutions and proposing options, not a single approach. He said the UK Government will publish a comparison on the UK and EU positions in due course.

Mr Davis said issues relating to withdrawal and the future relations are “inextricably linked”, and central to this process must be a desire to deliver the best outcome.

On the financial settlement, Mr Davis said the UK has a duty to taxpayers to “interrogate” the EU’s position, which its negotiators did this week. Whilst the UK has a different legal stance, it accepts that there must be a settlement in accordance with the law, and in the interests of the future relationship. There are “still significant differences” to be bridged.

Describing the third round of talks as productive, Mr Davis said there was a high degree of convergence on Ireland, and on CTA. There had been almost complete agreement on privilege issues, and on confidentiality.

Concluding his remarks, Mr Davis expressed his hope both sides would continue to work together constructively. He added that further papers would be published by the Department for Exiting the European Union in the coming weeks.

And with that, it is apparent that the European Council meeting, 19th – 20th October, is a key date for the UK Government, as EU leaders seek to determine whether the ‘sufficient progress’ test has been passed.

Barnier/Davis press conference after first substantial round of Brexit talks.

Speaking after four days of negotiations, the Chief Negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, today said there had been some areas of agreement about how British citizens living abroad and EU nationals living in the UK should be treated after Brexit. However, he said the EU believes citizens’ rights should be backed by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Mr Barnier said a clarification of the UK’s position on settling its outstanding debts to the EU when it leaves was also needed.

He said: “A clarification of the UK position is indispensable for us to negotiate and for us to make sufficient progress on this financial dossier, which is inseparable from the other withdrawal dossiers…We know that agreement will not be achieved through incremental steps. As soon as the UK is ready to clarify the nature of its commitments, we will be prepared to discuss this with the British negotiators.”

On the pressing issue of the island of Ireland, there was a first discussion on the impact of Brexit on two key subjects: the Good Friday Agreement and the Common Travel Area. Mr Barnier said there was agreement that the Good Friday Agreement, “in all its dimensions, requires more detailed discussions.” In particular, “more work needs to be done to protect North-South cooperation between Ireland and Northern Ireland.”

There was also agreement that the UK should clarify in the next session how it intends on maintaining the Common Travel Area after leaving the EU.

Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, said talks had been “robust” but there was a lot to be “positive” about in terms of the overall negotiations.

The takeaway: there was scant evidence of progress in a press conference to mark the end of the first substantive round of Brexit talks. Both sides looked – and sounded- as far apart as ever on key issues, most particularly on EU citizens’ rights and the divorce bill. Michel Barnier said there was a “fundamental divergence” with the British negotiating team over the way that the rights of EU citizens in the UK would be guaranteed, adding that he needed clarity on the UK’s position on the Brexit bill. Brexit However, David Davis said “We shouldn’t expect incremental progress in every round [of talks].”

Three rounds of Brexit talks were scheduled in June: for August, September, and October. There will be an EU summit in late October, where EU leaders will decide on whether the UK has made sufficient progress on financial issues – the so-called ‘divorce bill’. Only then can the UK progress to trade talks with the EU.

The press conference came today after Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, confirmed the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will be debated in the Commons on Thursday 7th and Monday 11th September.

The UK Parliament is now in recess, and will return on 5th September.

French Presidential Election 2017 – the outcome.

There we have it. It’s been a tense election of sharp rhetoric, and discourse pondering the future of France. But the second round of voting came and went today. And France has a new President.

Emmanuel Macron – the pro-EU, social liberal-won with a decisive victory over the far-right Marine Le Pen that his supporters hailed as holding back the tide of populism.

Macron, who at 39 becomes the youngest French President since Bonaparte, is a former economy minister who ran as a “neither left nor right” independent. He promise to shake up the French political system, and took 65.1% of the vote to Le Pen’s 34.9%, according to initial projections from early counts. It is a stronger-than-expected victory, and a stunning achievement for a novice to electoral politics – Macron has never been elected to public office before.

The size of the victory margin however does not disguise the fact a section of the French electorate felt disenchantment. Pollsters said between 25%-26% of voters stayed away, meaning turnout at its lowest level for the second round of a French Presidential election since 1969. Among those who did vote, some 12% submitted a blank or other invalid ballot, indicating they did not support either candidate.

Yet the far-right can also take some comfort in its best electoral showing in French history. Although Le Pen fell well short of the presidency, her score is roughly double what her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, got in the second round in 2002. No doubt the anti-immigration, anti-EU Front National’s supporters will claim that on the back of this performance, the party has a central place as an opposition force in France.

Not too much comfort, however. This win also marks the third consecutive setback for European populist parties who preached a mix of Trump-style nationalism and protectionism to voters fed up with conventional politics. Austria saw pro-European Green Alexander Van der Bellen defeat far-right Norbert Hofer in the country’s Presidental election. To the Netherlands, which saw sitting Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) see off far-right Party for Freedom (PVV). France today ultimately decided to opt for politics of hope over hate.

Of course, there are challenges on the horizon. The next test for Macron and Le Pen — as well as the mainstream parties who for the first time failed to get a candidate through to the second round of a Presidential election — is next month’s Parliamentary election. Its outcome will determine whether Macron can translate his strong mandate into enough seats in the National Assembly, and a governing mandate to run France. Macron will have to remember that some of his voters today came from other parties across the political spectrum and turned out not in complete support of his programme, but to stop the Front National.

To win next month’s Parliamentary elections, Macron will have to defy political tradition once more. His own political movement, En Marche, was formed just last year and this will be the first time it has fielded Parliamentary candidates. And, even if Macron wins enough seats in Parliament to lead the government, he will face resistance from unions, a hostile left, and the far-right to his proposed economic reforms.

Challenges and battles lie ahead. Yet tomorrow will seem a little brighter after this result. The far-right once more could not achieve their objectives. Across Europe, the far-right, with its policies of fear and division, did not prevail.

And it will not prevail.