Esther McVey: Now that May’s Brexit deal has been voted down, we need to win back trust. Here’s how.

We also need to examine a ‘no deal transition period’ – i.e: a payment for a period of time to enable both the UK and the EU to adjust to the changes ahead of us.

Esther McVey is a former Work and Pensions Secretary, and is MP for Tatton.

The fallout from Parliament’s rejection of the Meaningful Vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal continues, but what is clear is that something has gone very wrong in our politics.  As most of this this site’s readers know, I resigned from the Cabinet over the deal. And in my resignation letter, I wrote about the danger of trust being lost. As a political class, we have stretched public trust to the limit in recent years but, if we now fail to honour the biggest democratic vote in our history, we risk severing trust entirely.

Parliament is awash with competing views about what needs to happen next. What is most startling is how most of these views have nothing to do with implementing the will of the people, and expose just how out of touch that political class is.

For a majority of Labour MPs, in particular ,this is about overturning a result they have never accepted. They believe people were too stupid to make an informed decision about how the EU affects their lives. Amidst the metropolitan bubble, they have convinced themselves that people across the country are clamouring to listen to their betters, and do as they are told in a second referendum. This view is deluded – and if they ever managed to block Brexit it could genuinely break politics as we know it.

However, it is the Conservatives who are most in danger of severing trust with the voters and suffering the consequences. We are the party in office – the party that introduced the referendum, and the party whose members predominantly support sovereignty and exiting the EU. We should take no false comfort in whatever polls might predict the election result to be when all trust has been lost. Not even the economic destruction threatened by the Marxist alternative might be enough to save us.

The Withdrawal Agreement falls short of delivering what people voted for, but it is the compromises doing the rounds that have the potential really to pour petrol on the fire. The current deal would leave us tied to the EU and their its indefinitely. So how is an alternative such as Norway Plus or Common Market 2.0, which look even less like Brexit, a potential solution? Not to mention that delivering either could only be achieved with the collusion of Labour MPs. What is worse is that at the heart of these developments is not what is best for the country, or genuinely delivering on the votes of 17.4 million people, but rather getting politicians out of a muddle of their own creation.

After the resounding rejection of the deal, the Prime Minister now needs to go back to the EU to get a better deal – fundamentally, to ensure the removal of the backstop, and that the payment of the £39 billion gains us a future trade deal along the lines outlined by Donald Tusk back in March 2018, sometimes referred to as Canada Plus.

At the same time, so that the EU can be in no doubt of our Government’s will to deliver for the people, and for our Party to live up to our general election manifesto commitment that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, we need to show how we would spend that £39 billion at home if we left without a deal; reveal to the public all the no deal preparations already done by the civil service; explain what World Trade Organisations rules are, and set out the side deals we need to secure.

We also need to look at a ‘no deal transition period’ just like the kind we had for a ‘deal transition period’ –  i.e: a payment for a period of time whereby we and the EU adjust to the changes ahead of us. This would continue as already planned until Dec 2020. We are good neighbours, and seek to remain as such.

What we can’t do is shackle ourselves to a bad deal simply to get Brexit over and done with because politicians think the effort of coming out of the EU is too much hard work. Nor can we keep the public in the dark about our options post-29th March, simply because politicians don’t want change. Change is inevitable – and preparations and planning are the solution. For the idea that somehow things will move on and people will forget what they voted for in the biggest referendum of a life time is fantasy. Let me assure my colleagues that if we break the public trust on something as big as this we will not be easily forgiven.

18 January 2019 – today’s press releases

As another week draws to a close, the opportunism of the Conservatives becomes more apparent, using the chaos of Brexit to disguise their true intent. And it isn’t to make life better for ordinary people, or to fulfil the promises of the Leave campaign… Lib Dems: Boris still peddling mistruths on Brexit Lib Dems fight […]

As another week draws to a close, the opportunism of the Conservatives becomes more apparent, using the chaos of Brexit to disguise their true intent. And it isn’t to make life better for ordinary people, or to fulfil the promises of the Leave campaign…

  • Lib Dems: Boris still peddling mistruths on Brexit
  • Lib Dems fight Tory threats to human rights
  • Lib Dems: Final fig leaf of leave campaign falls off with Fox

Lib Dems: Boris still peddling mistruths on Brexit

Responding to the speech Boris Johnson made today, Liberal Democrat Brexit Spokesperson Tom Brake said:

No one will take lessons from Boris Johnson on eroding trust in our democracy. The fact he is still peddling mistruths about money from Brexit going to our NHS is shameful. Brexit will make us poorer.

As exit day approaches, with Theresa May’s deal soundly defeated, extending Article 50 is the only responsible course of action left.

We can then hold a people’s vote with the option to remain in the EU. This could happen much sooner than has been suggested and dig the country out of the huge hole the Tories have excavated.

Lib Dems fight Tory threats to human rights

Responding to a letter suggesting that the Conservative Government will consider repealing the Human Rights Act after Brexit, the Liberal Democrats vowed to “continue to lead the fight to protect our human rights”.

The letter, from Justice Minister Edward Argar to the House of Lords’ EU Committee, states that the Government will not repeal or replace the Human Rights Act “while the process of EU exit is underway”, but will “wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further”.

This follows concerns raised by Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson Ed Davey over the lack of a proper commitment to the European Court of Human Rights in Theresa May’s Brexit deal. As Mr Davey pointed out in a letter to the Prime Minister dated 22nd November 2018:

The draft political declaration published today (22nd November) merely states that: ‘The future relationship should incorporate the United Kingdom’s continued commitment to respect the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights’.

In that letter, Mr Davey asked the Prime Minister to explain this weakened wording, and to commit to the UK remaining a party to the ECHR.

Commenting on the Government’s letter, Ed Davey said:

This new Conservative threat to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights is a scandal, and will undermine the Prime Minister’s attempt to win consensus.

The European Convention is totally separate from the EU, so the Conservatives have no mandate to attack British freedoms, yet it seems if Brexit goes through, that is their plan.

The Liberal Democrats demand better. We will continue to lead the fight to protect our human rights against Conservative attempts to undermine them.

Lib Dems: Final fig leaf of leave campaign falls off with Fox

Commenting on Liam Fox’s admission that he hasn’t yet secured any trade deals in preparation for a no deal Brexit, Liberal Democrat Brexit Spokesperson Tom Brake said:

The final fig leaf of the leave campaign has finally fallen off as it turns out several trade deals Liam Fox said would be ready for Brexit will not be, perhaps not even one.

Not only has Liam Fox’s ‘easiest trade deal in history’ failed to materialise, so to have new trade deals disappeared from view.

This is why it is time to go back to the public with a people’s vote, with an option to remain.

Stewart Jackson: Don’t pivot to the Customs Union, Prime Minister – it could destroy the Conservative Party

Breaking her promise in such a way would enrage many voters, divide her Party, and cost the nation dearly in lost Brexit opportunities.

Stewart Jackson was MP for Peterborough 2005-17 and Chief of Staff to David Davis 2017-18.

As expected, Jeremy Corbyn’s No Confidence motion tabled yesterday served to unify and focus the Conservative Party on the existential danger, not just to our party but to the whole country, of a red in tooth and claw Labour government. In that sense, it rather backfired.

Perversely, it has ramped up the pressure on Corbyn to enunciate a clearer position in response to the defeat of the Prime Minister’s unlamented Withdrawal Agreement, between the Europhile majority of his party pressing for extension or revocation of Article 50, a Norway model soft Brexit, or a second referendum, and the millions of Labour voters who supported Brexit. I cannot see that Corbyn will move much, because he still commands the trust and support of the Labour membership and influential figures like Len McCluskey and because he believes that the EU is a plutocratic capitalist cartel dedicated to neoliberalism and doing the bidding of rapacious multinationals – a view he’s held since about 1983.

Labour’s introspection has bought the Prime Minister some breathing space. Although as a result of John Bercow’s decision to disregard Commons precedent and rip up the rule book to allow the Remain ultras like Dominic Grieve to circumscribe the Government’s room for manoeuvre in last week’s business motion, she has only four more days to outline what her Plan B might be.

My own view is that her tenure is strictly time limited, but my instinct is that she probably has one more pivotal Commons vote left before the pressure from the 1922 Committee and the Cabinet for her to step aside and let another leader take over will become insurmountable.

She’s been lucky, too, this week with her Remain opponents. Remain true believers are as fractious and impatient as anyone else – witness the spat between Nick Boles and Grieve over which (wrecking) Bill to present in the Commons – Boles’s quirky EU Referendum (No2) Bill or Grieve’s second referendum Bill? It’s a microcosm of the fight between the Norway crowd and the ‘Peoples’ Vote’ (sic) supporters. Neither has or likely will have a majority in the House of Commons, and Boles’s effort seems to have blown up on the tarmac via a big raspberry from the Liaison Committee. Nevertheless, the aim of most of their advocates is to delay and then kill Brexit.

For all that, Theresa May would be wise to avoid jumping out of the frying pan of a calamitous Commons defeat into the fire of a full-blown Tory civil war. The lack of a clear policy position after Tuesday’s vote appears to have emboldened some of the Cabinet to disregard even further collective responsibility. They now argue – both in code (“reaching out to other parties”) and explicitly – for a deal with Labour, involving reneging on our explicit 2017 General Election manifesto commitment to leave the Customs Union. Indeed, to the contrary, some ministers are wholeheartedly embracing the idea of one. This was always the position of people like Greg Clark and Philip Hammond, but they now feel they have license to sell this unappetising prospect in plain sight.

‘Pivoting’ towards the Customs Union would be a very bad idea for a number of reasons. Labour have no coherent Brexit policy and the customs union demand is only the least worst part of an incredible smorgasbord of opportunistic waffle. The Opposition really isn’t interested in anything but precipitating division and open warfare in our party, and certainly not in developing a coherent and pluralistic policy which can pass the Commons. Secondly, a customs union as a discrete policy is a terrible idea, as consistently and eloquently argued by Greg Hands – primarily because it would undermine a key rationale by Leave voters for supporting Brexit, the aim of allowing the UK to strike new, lucrative global trade deals after our exit from the EU.

Most acutely, Conservative MPs should understand the peril of shredding a policy which the Prime Minister has publicly endorsed over 30 times, when faced with a Party membership and wider electorate warming to No Deal/WTO and still irked by the debacle of Chequers and the Withdrawal Agreement. A Party faithful willing to believe that we can still strike a Canada Plus style deal with the EU. And why wouldn’t they? This week David Davis, Dominic Raab, Arlene Foster and Peter Lilley launched A Better Deal, which offers a reasonable alternative strategy for the Prime Minister when she returns to Brussels in a few days’ time. Together with enhanced No Deal planning, it is at least as good as any other course of action, not least because it was the basis of the Prime Minister’s policy outlined at Lancaster House, Florence and Mansion House and at last year’s General Election.

Fully conceding on the Customs Union would be such an egregious capitulation that it would endanger our local government candidates in May, and were we foolish enough to extend Article 50 to necessitate by Treaty obligation participation in the EU Parliament elections (as Boles’s bill demands), it would invite a populist upsurge of unprecedented severity.

Conservative Associations are much less deferential, more activist, and frankly more Eurosceptic now, and they’d scarcely wear such a retreat from our solemn promises. MPs who supported it would struggle to justify their decision. Remember, recent polling shows that people’s attachment to getting Brexit comfortably outstrips their attachment to even the best and most diligent local MP, and to political parties generally.

Finally, it’s as well to consider Scotland as a terrifying morality tale. In 2010, Labour polled 42 per cent there and took 41 seats – most of them won very handily. Just five years later, motivated by bitter disappointment in the wake of a fractious and unpleasant referendum campaign and a feeling that “the Establishment” had cheated them of their dreams of self-government and independence, a significant bulk of their hitherto most loyal voters turned on their own party, leaving that party with just one seat and less than a quarter of the votes.

Couldn’t happen again? Don’t bet on it.

If May takes the path of least resistance by adopting the Customs Union post-Brexit to get any deal through the Commons, she risks not just a terrible party schism but electoral Armageddon.

Owen Paterson: No Deal would put the people back in control.

Other options being floated – extending Article 50, a second referendum, or the subjugation of the Withdrawal Agreement – are designed to hold us in the EU’s orbit in the hope that we may be sucked back in

Owen Paterson is a former Environment Secretary and former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is MP for Shropshire North. He is Chairman of UK2020.

The EU question has always been about sovereignty.  It is about who governs the United Kingdom and how.  Parliament deliberately put the answer to this in the hands of the British people by passing the EU Referendum Act in 2015.  In 2016, the people gave their answer.  They wished, via democratically-elected Members of Parliament, to govern themselves.

The Withdrawal Agreement categorically fails to deliver that result.  Despite repeatedly ruling out membership of the Customs Union, the Prime Minister’s proposed “single customs territory” locks the UK into it in all but name.  The UK would be tied to EU rules on critical policy issues, with the European Court of Justice retaining the right to issue “binding rulings” on the interpretation of such rules and sanction the UK for non-compliance.

The Agreement is not even compatible with the EU (Withdrawal) Act passed earlier this year.  This Act repeals the European Communities Act 1972 (ECA) entirely from March 29 of this year.  Yet under the Prime Minister’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement, a version of the ECA will remain in place throughout the lengthy transition period.

The supine nature of the Withdrawals Agreement’s negotiation is fully revealed in its treatment of Northern Ireland.  The Backstop would keep Northern Ireland in the Customs Union and Single Market, creating a new political entity called “UK(NI)”.  Northern Ireland’s elected politicians would have no say over significant areas of this new entity’s policy (ironically, unlike those in Dublin); Northern Ireland’s constitutional status would be fundamentally altered in clear breach of the Belfast Agreement’s Principle of Consent, the requirement to consult the Northern Ireland Assembly and even the Acts of Union 1800.  With no unilateral right to end the arrangement, the UK could continue indefinitely as a permanent rule-taker, with no say as to how its rules are made – while paying £39 billion for the privilege.

None of these failures arise under World Trade Organisation terms.  The WTO has already confirmed that “nothing in WTO rules . . . forces anyone to put up border posts”, so there would be no “hard border”.  The jurisdiction of the ECJ would end and we would save ourselves £39 billion. The UK would be free to make its own laws, to be interpreted in our own courts.  We would take our independent seat on the WTO to work for free trade with allies across the world.

Perhaps the real reason for the Establishment hysteria surrounding a No Deal Brexit under WTO rules is that we actually would be leaving.  The other options now being floated – extending Article 50, a second referendum, or the subjugation demanded by the Withdrawal Agreement – are designed to hold the UK in the EU’s orbit in the hope that it may be sucked back in.  These options would completely fail to honour the biggest democratic verdict ever delivered in British history.

The optimal Brexit outcome remains a wide-ranging, zero-tariff Free Trade Agreement as offered repeatedly by Donald Tusk.  Such a deal can still be negotiated, but not by the end of March.  Having wasted so much time on the Withdrawal Agreement, leaving on WTO terms is now the only way to break free fully and build a more prosperous, independent future.

This article is adapted from a new Economists for Free Trade report: ‘No Deal is the Best Deal for Britain

Ben Houchen: Free Ports would allow Brexit to boost the most deprived regions of the UK

The new Shared Prosperity Fund, which will replace EU funding into the regions, is a great opportunity to put areas like mine back in control of our own economic destinies.

Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.

Life after Brexit means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To the academic Brexiteer it could be the sunlit uplands of Free Trade and Free Speech, while to the arch-Remainer it means a nightmarish hellscape of disorder and scarcity. But to Britons who voted both leave and remain, life after Brexit should mean change. Real, visible, demonstrable change.

Whether we leave with no deal or the EU’s proposed deal, the onus is on the nation’s politicians to make life after we leave both visibly different and better than before. The threat to our democracy if we coast along, or worse, ignore the will of the people, is real.

Putting blue passports and other changes to international travel aside, making ‘Brexit’ feel like ‘Brexit’ means delivering the promises of the referendum. To Conservatives this means – or it certainly should mean – more freedom for individuals in the immediate term, while looking at how we create a better world for future generations, and do justice to those who came before us.

In short, those of us who believe in both Britain and Brexit need to protect the vision that was sold to voters when we won the referendum in 2016 – taking back control. We need to clearly demonstrate that politicians have listened, learned and will think and act differently to before. This can be achieved in a number of ways.

The UK has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates anywhere in Europe, but there are still hundreds of thousands of under 25s in need of the first step on the career ladder. This is one challenge where an end to unrestricted, unskilled migration may bring change.

On top of incentivising companies to hire young people from the UK – either through the tax system or otherwise – the scarcity caused by restrictions on unskilled labour may well force companies to become more innovative and thus productive.

While we can blame free movement for exacerbating our productivity problem, tackling it as a whole rather than relying purely on migration controls is one of the best ways we can grow our economy. That’s why I welcome the Government’s plan to introduce an immigration system based on people’s skills, not where they come from. A clear example of demonstrable change.

A new trade policy, with an eventual shift from the declining EU to relationships with faster growing economies must be a national priority. One of my flagship policies for the Tees Valley, which I hope the Government will adopt, is the creation of Free Trade Zones in the UK.

These would realise the benefits of increased manufacturing and international trade faster than might otherwise happen, through tariff and tax incentives. Sometimes called Free Ports, these zones could help to add billions to the economies of the UK’s most deprived regions, and create hundreds of thousands of jobs. Most fittingly, this policy would bring the benefits of Brexit to areas that voted heavily to leave. Another example of clear, demonstrable change.

Closer to home, there are some quick wins the Government can do the day after Brexit to demonstrate it is serious about change. Scrapping the hated Tampon Tax and VAT on energy bills would make the vast majority of Britons better off over night. It might also consider a ‘CANZUK’ migration deal with Australia, New Zealand and Canada, to strengthen ties with our old friends on the international stage while ensuring we have access to skills from around the globe.

The new Shared Prosperity Fund, which will replace EU funding into the regions, is a great opportunity to put areas like mine back in control of our own economic destinies – especially if the money is directed by elected Metro Mayors.

Some organisations, often big businesses and even bigger public bodies, want business as usual after Brexit, yet these organisations are desperately in need of change, and the ones that will benefit most from it.

Many of the challenges faced today are not entirely Brexit related, but more simply the reality of political, economic, and business life in the 21st century. While not a silver bullet, Brexit does however present both the opportunity and an incentive to tackle them now.

Henry Newman: An end to free movement and forced payments to Brussels. Is the backstop really so bad?

None of us would have started from here. But the Government has got us into this fix – and May’s deal is the best of the three possible ways forward.

Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.

I had hoped that MPs would return from Christmas ready to find a compromise – a path through Brexit so we can move on to deciding what sort of future relationship we want. Yet, for now, it seems that Parliamentarians on both sides of the debate have hardened their positions. In a week, the House of Commons will get its first chance to vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. It’s not perfect, and few people would have started from here. But it is a reasonable deal that takes us right out of the EU and the Single Market. And yet it seems that some Eurosceptic MPs just don’t want to take yes for an answer.

Many of the concerns about the deal centre on the backstop – an arrangement to keep the Irish border open. There are certainly problems with it but there are also advantages. Some people are worried we could end up “trapped” in the backstop. They rightly treat the Prime Minister’s insistence that we won’t get there at all with raised eyebrows. So let’s consider a worst-case scenario. Imagine that we end up in the backstop and there’s no immediate path out.

We could be in the backstop in less than two years’ time, once the standstill transition ends. Or we could apply to extend the transition for a one-off further period of up to two years, meaning that (unless we had agreed a successor relationship) we would be in the backstop by January 2023. It is not the case, as Sir Bill Cash suggested at the weekend, that the transition could be extended until “the end of the century”. Either we enter the backstop, or we agree a new deal.

In the backstop the UK can end free movement. I back an open migration system that welcomes the world’s brightest and best to contribute to our country. But the public want our Parliament to decide who comes here. We could do that from day one of the backstop.

Our gross contributions to the EU are currently over £350 million a week, as the Leave campaign infamously pointed out. Of course the UK gets some of that back. But in the backstop our contributions wouldn’t just be less. They would be zero. No compulsory payments at all, once the divorce bill is settled. So if the UK was parked in the backstop we wouldn’t have to hand over any of our hard-earned money.

As a Eurosceptic, one of the things I most wanted from Brexit was an escape from the political project. I wanted to stop the EU integration ratchet, where the answer to every problem is “more Europe”. The backstop would wind the clock back, taking us towards the trading bloc model of the early 1980s. Eurosceptics used to say that was what they wanted. Now it is offered on a plate, some are saying it’s not good enough.

Our services sector, accounting for 80 per cent of our domestic wealth, will be free from EU control in the backstop. We will be obliged to maintain current European rules on goods and agriculture in Northern Ireland, but could resist damaging new rules. This point has not been well appreciated. In the backstop we would be able to say “non, merci” to new laws from the EU (other than on state aid and competition). We would have to implement amendments and updates in Northern Ireland, but if the EU tried to use these to ‘sneak through’ major changes we could push back.

In the backstop, we could set our own laws on employment rights and environmental protections, as long as a baseline of general principles are maintained. Eurosceptics have long complained about the Habitats directive – we could re-examine that. Imagine in the mid-2020s the French forcing through a new EU directive, mandating a 35-hour week for all and a month’s August holiday. We could go our own way.

I’m not Pollyanna – there are problems with the backstop, especially for Northern Ireland. But in that divided community Brexit was always going to be problematic. You could keep the whole UK in legal lockstep with Ireland and the EU, but that would defeat the point of Brexit. Leave Northern Ireland aligned to the EU, as the rest of the UK diverges, and you upset Unionists. Pull Northern Ireland away from Ireland, and you enrage Nationalists. The only answer is a hybrid solution. The backstop, imperfect as it is, and improved though it should be, does that. No wonder unionist business and farming groups back it. Some see a chance to be a British ‘Hong Kong’, although as Open Europe has pointed out that’s not a very applicable analogy.

The backstop gives the UK zero-tariff trade with the EU, helping protect manufacturing. That means we won’t yet get control over our trade policy – something I would ultimately like. Some fear the EU could exploit the backstop agreement to sell access to our markets without our consent. I’m not convinced. We could push back against new EU trade deals. Anyway, if a country like Australia was about to sign a deal with Brussels, they would also want to sit down with us. The UK isn’t Turkey. We are one of the world’s biggest economies so it’s inevitable a new EU trading partner would want to discuss mutual market access, as well as the bilateral services and investor protection trade deals which it’s possible for the UK to sign while in the backstop. (By the way, in the backstop we could do our own services trade deals with other countries, independently of anything the EU agrees).

The Government has made plenty of errors while negotiating Brexit. Downing Street is appallingly bad at explaining its own policies. At no point did the Prime Minister really level with the public about the compromises necessary to reach agreement with Brussels, which has its own red lines. But it’s also true that critics of this deal are often confused about the details and unrealistic about the alternatives. Too often they seem to fetishise a few details of the problems around the backstop, missing the wood surrounding the trees. They also tend to take the European Commission’s spin at face value – instead they should listen to diplomats from EU member states, who are far from happy with the backstop.

At this point there are only three real options: first, stopping Brexit, probably with a divisive second referendum which could tear our country apart. Second, pushing the UK out the EU with No Deal, which Parliament would surely try to block. We would be fine in the medium-term but the immediate disruption would be profound. Or third, taking the bird in the hand. Back the only deal on the table. Push the Prime Minister to get tweaks to improve the backstop, but accept that we have been members for four and a half decades and getting out won’t be like flicking a switch. And then on 30th March 2019 we can put Groundhog Day arguments about whether we should or shouldn’t leave behind us, and concentrate on what we do with our newfound freedoms.

Greg Hands: “The power is with us.” The two EU officials who want to punish Britain, crafted the deal – and claim they are winning.

Selmayr and Weyand have got much of their way so far. And there’s every chance they will continue to dominate the process.

Greg Hands is MP for Chelsea and Fulham, and a former Minister of State at the Department of International Trade.

The Commission’s top German Brexit officials are clear: the Withdrawal Agreement hugely favours the EU, and was always meant to be so.

The word from these top EU officials is that: “Northern Ireland is the price that Britain must pay for Brexit;” that the Withdrawal Agreement shows Brexit “doesn’t work”; that “the power is with the EU” and that “the EU has the best negotiating position for the future relationship”.

Much attention has focused on Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxemburger EU Commission President, and Michel Barnier, the Commission’s French chief Brexit negotiator.

But most Brussels commentators maintain that Brexit details are determined by their respective number twos: Martin Selmayr (Chief of Staff to Juncker since 2014, and – controversially – General Secretary of the European Commission since March 2018) and Sabine Weyand, deputy to Barnier.

Both happen to be German. Indeed, Die Welt, the leading German daily, early on in the negotiations did a feature titled ‘The top German players in the Brexit poker game’, with a certain pride, on their central role in the coming talks.

Selmayr and Weyand – the well-connected German officials, behind the scenes

They come from similar backgrounds. Both grew up near the French border (Selmayr, aged 48, in Karlsruhe and Weyand, aged 54 in Saarbruecken). Both are connected with the German CDU. Weyand joined it as a sixth former, according to a proud feature from her local TV station Saarlaendische Rundfunk. Selmayr, meanwhile, edited his own Wikipedia page to remove references to his CDU membership, replacing it with membership of the Flemish Christian Democrats, according to Brussels news service Politico.

Both are close to Peter Altmaier, who has long been seen as Angela Merkel’s closest ally in Berlin. To declare an interest, I have also known Altmaier for 12 years, but I have never met either Selmayr or Weyand.

The same Saarlaendische Rundfunk piece says that Weyand got to know Altmaier when she was a sixth former. The Die Welt piece says that Selmayr counts Altmaier also as a friend since that time. Altmaier is also from the Saarland, which hugs Germany’s western border with France. As it happens, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s successor as CDU Party Leader, also comes from the Saarland. In my experience of German politics, hailing from the Saarland tends to make one a Francophile, although Altmaier is also a great enthusiast for the UK, too.

Both are known to work incredibly hard. Selmayr is known in German as a ‘Strippenzieher’, best translated as a scheming powerbroker. He has earned multiple nicknames like the “Monster” and the “Beast of Berlaymont” (the name of the EU headquarters). When Selmayr chairs the Commission Cabinet – according to the FT – other chefs call their Monday meeting “the weekly humiliation”

Selmayr and Weyand’s approach to the Brexit talks: punish “the heretics”

Anyway, enough on the background, which is important in understanding what has happened since the referendum in 2016. Weyand was appointed soon after Barnier, on 1st October 2016. Selmayr has been in situ in one guise or another since 2014.

It has been clear from the beginning that the mission of senior Brussels officials has been to punish Britain for Brexit. Selmayr and Weyand appear to be no exception to this.

As early as May 2017, the Daily Telegraph reported that British officials believed that Mr Selmayr, an “arch-federalist”, was determined to poison the negotiations in a bid to “punish” the UK for leaving the European Union.

In September 2017, Selmayr was reported to have blasted Brexit as “stupid”.  “He is a theologian who regards the British as heretics,” was how a former British ambassador to Brussels described him to The Times.

It is Selmayr who stands accused of having leaked the details of two dinners between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Although he denies this. The accounts claimed May “begged for help” and described May as appearing “anxious”, “tormented”, “despondent and discouraged,” and cruelly described how our Prime Minister appeared to be having sleepless nights.

Juncker – or more likely Selmayr – vetoed greater transparency in the Brexit talks and specifically recommendations from the EU’s official watchdog that Weyand’s role be more scrutinised and her meetings published.

What they now say about the Brexit Agreement: and why that should warn us, British MPs, in advance of next week’s vote

Since the Withdrawal Agreement was finalised in November, Selmayr and Weyand have left most of the public words to their bosses Juncker and Barnier, but behind the scenes various reports have emerged of what these two officials think. And these officials are the ones who know the detail best. Both have been clear that the Agreement is overwhelmingly favourable to the European Union.

The deal wasn’t even yet signed when Weyand briefed EU ambassadors on Friday 9th November, as reported in The Times: “They must align their rules but the EU will retain all the controls. They apply the same rules. UK wants a lot more from future relationship, so EU retains its leverage.” And that “we should be in the best negotiation position for the future relationship. This requires the customs union as the basis of the future relationship.” And also that Britain “would have to swallow a link between access to products and fisheries in future agreements.”

Dominic Raab resigned over the agreement, and stated that Selmayr had been boasting that “losing Northern Ireland” was the “price of Brexit”. “You would hear swirling around in Brussels – particularly the people around Selmayr, Martin Selmayr in the Commission, and some others – that losing Northern Ireland was the price the UK would pay for Brexit,” said Mr Raab. “This was reported to me through the diplomatic channel”. “It is one thing to defend your interests robustly, but there is another thing in the spirit of so-called European unity to be trying to carve up a major European nation.”

Selmayr told a meeting of EU sherpas on Friday 23rd November that “the power is with us”.

Unusually for such a senior official, Selmayr himself gave an interview to the obscure German regional newspaper the Passauer Neue Presse on 7th December, claiming that the agreement now proved that Brexit “doesn’t work”. “The Europeans are at one on the question of Brexit. All have noticed, that this exit from the EU, which the populists have extolled as a great success, doesn’t work. The other 27 states are united: they have negotiated hard and realised their objectives.”

And to put the ball back into London’s court, an unnamed senior EU official told The Times: “To use a Christmas theme, we want all parties and factions in the British parliament to feel the bleak midwinter.”

These are hardly ringing endorsements of a treaty between friendly, democratic and free-market nations. The agreement, in the word of the EU’s most senior officials, “doesn’t work,” it leaves “the power with us [the EU]”, and that the EU has “the best negotiating position for the future relationship” and that losing part of one’s country is “the price of Brexit”.

So what does it mean for the future?

Some might claim that these are mere officials, and that we should judge the Withdrawal Agreement on its merits, not on how others choose to paint it. There are three reasons why we should be further concerned about what this means for the future trade relationship, yet to be negotiated.

First, the same people are likely to be in charge from the EU side. These are people totally committed to seeing that Britain is harmed. These are also the people most on top of the detail. Selmayr even reportedly wants to run the trade negotiations, even though that would ordinarily be a matter for DG Trade in Brussels.

Selmayr’s views on trade deals in general is also very unhelpful for the UK. For example, there is strong evidence that he wouldn’t allow data to be included in any future EU-UK trade deal. He is reported to have insisted that deals “should include things like cars, cheese and beef”.

Second, Selmayr and Weyand have manipulated the negotiations to first insist that the Future Relationship needed to be separate to the Withdrawal Agreement (which we should never have agreed to – but that’s another story), but nonetheless insert the things that mattered most to them into the Withdrawal Agreement – like Geographic Indicators and the Backstop itself, which are actually all about the future relationship, and not about the divorce. This doesn’t augur well for the future talks. Nor does Weyand’s briefing to EU ambassadors that the agreement “requires the customs union as the basis of the future relationship”.

Third, and most importantly, these officials will be growing in power in the coming months and years. Juncker will be gone in June, after the European elections, as will all the other commissioners, including probably the capable and experienced Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström. Barnier’s future after June is also uncertain. The European Parliament will be new and could well have a very different make up in numbers and in faces to that presently.

The continuity in Brussels will be provided by senior officials like Selmayr and Weyand. If they succeed in getting the Withdrawal Agreement over the line, who will be able to stop them?

Shanker A. Singham: Brexit – and a new strategy for a New Year

It’s time for the Government to dust down Plan A Plus and A Better Deal – rather than its own scheme, which is going nowhere.

Shanker A. Singham is CEO of Competere and lead author of Plan A Plus and A Better Deal.

As MPs prepare to return from their Christmas break and face the New Year, they will be acutely conscious that it is a year that will go down in history – the year the UK left the European Union.

This is the moment for the Government to come up with a new approach to the Brexit negotiations. We have laid before them Plan A Plus, which sets out the comprehensive framework for how to develop independent trade policy for all the UK’s many options, including the EU FTA.

We have even more recently suggested an Alternative Withdrawal Agreement which we believe would pass House of Commons (A Better Deal, launched with David Davis, Shailesh Vara, the former Northern Ireland minister who resigned over the Withdrawal Agreement and Arlene Foster, the DUP leader).

We explained that the Government should present this to the EU in the likely event that the current Withdrawal Agreement does not pass the Commons when it is brought back again in January. Not bringing a vote in December was a serious tactical error. Had the Prime Minister lost that vote by a significant amount, it would have strengthened her hand in Brussels not weakened it. Clearly, the EU will not deviate from what is a very good deal for them without a clear reason – , i.e: a deal cannot get through the Commons.

Our alternative to the Northern Ireland backstop recognises the reality that permanent arrangements on the Irish border are crucial and should be the starting point for any agreement. We have developed a comprehensive way in which the current border arrangements can be maintained without the need for physical infrastructure.

Ultimately, this would be set out in a chapter in a EU-UK Free Trade Agreement on customs and trade facilitation, together with special Irish facilitations, based on a basic FTA with zero tariffs for goods and no quantitative restrictions. Only if a comprehensive FTA with the EU is not reached at the end of the transition period would this part of that FTA would apply. But the intention of all parties would be an advanced FTA which incorporating these arrangements.

In other words, the backstop would eventually become a front stop. This is logical, because if the backstop as currently drafted is the only way to solve the border issue, then it will be the front stop. But of course the backstop, as currently drafted is not the only solution, and is indeed unnecessary, as the UK, EU and the Republic of Ireland have repeatedly conceded.

Faced with all this, the government should do the following:

  • Table the Alternative Withdrawal Agreement we have proposed;
  • Make it clear that this is the only Withdrawal Agreement that can command a majority in the Commons.
  • Emphasise that we are preparing aggressively for No Deal, and that this will include unilateral actions by us that would inevitably impact the export interests of EU farmers, simply because this will be necessary to control food price inflation.

It would then be crucial for the Government to do what it has so far seemed incapable of doing, which is to hold the offer on the table and not blink. Unrealisable statements from MPs that they will not allow No Deal merely give comfort to those in the EU who think that the UK can be beaten into accepting a bad deal.

Whether there is a deal or not is, of course, not in the gift of Parliament. It depends on what the EU does, and how intransigent it is prepared to be. No Deal would be very bad for a number of EU member states, in particular for the Republic of Ireland itself. Irish beef farmers currently supply 70 per cent or so of the UK’s beef, and if those exports had to compete with exports from all over the world, they would not survive. Yet, this is where we seem to be heading – an impasse which has been caused principally by the backstop, pushed by the Irish government.

To be clear, exiting the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement is not an ideal outcome. But even No Deal is better than accepting the current Withdrawal Agreement which would locks the UK into all the preconditions of a very bad deal with the EU. Becoming a third country should not hold the terrors that our own Government has suggested, provided we prepare and undertake the unilateral measures that are necessary in this eventuality.

The Government must also communicate to the public and to the private sector what measures it is undertaking. The more the EU sees that the UK is seriously preparing for this eventuality, the better our negotiating leverage is, and the more likely we will be to agree a better deal with them.

As the dust settles on a tumultuous 2018, let us keep our eyes on the prize and not forget the tremendous gains possible if we embrace the opportunities that Brexit offers. A G7 nation adopting independent trade and regulatory policy for the first time in 45 years is a major global event, and we should expect that it will be difficult, particularly given how enmeshed we have become in the European system. However, what is difficult is not impossible. We must not give up. The prize is worth fighting for.

When does an unmanaged No Deal become a managed No Deal?

This morning, despite claims it would never happen, we seem to have a unicorn made flesh – just in time for Christmas.

David Gauke said in Cabinet this week that a managed No Deal “is not on offer from the EU and the responsibility of Cabinet ministers is not to propagate unicorns but to slay them.”  Logicians of a certain bent would have difficulty with this claim, arguing that one cannot slay what does not exist.  While literalists might balk at imagining how Cabinet ministers would go about trying to propagate the beasts.

However, the Justice Secretary was of course falling back on one of Brexit’s favourite metaphors, attributed by some to Sabine Weyand, and taken up enthusiastically by Remain-orientated critics of the Government everywhere.  But when is a unicorn not a unicorn?  Or, to give the question context from Gauke’s own example, when is a managed No Deal not a managed No Deal?

One take would be that a unmanaged No Deal would mean no arrangements at all between Britain and the EU to replace those due to end on March 29.  But it became very clear yesterday that this will not be the case.  The EU plans to allow flights from the UK into and overflying the EU for a year, hauliers to carry freight by road into the EU for nine months without having to apply for permits, and some UK financial services regulations to be recognised as equivalent to the EU’s for one or two years.

It is hard to see these arrangements being removed once they are put in place.  To take one example almost at random – hauliers – one must look consider the context for Ireland, which publishes its own No Deal plans today.  It is reliant on transport via the UK for exports and imports.  The EU will not collectively cut off Ireland’s nose to spite Britain’s face, or the other way round if you prefer.  As Roberto Azevêdo, the WTO’s head, has suggested, trading on basic WTO terms “would not be the end of the world”.

However, as he also said, it “wouldn’t be a walk in the park either”.  To take a striking example – and one capable of launching a thousand tabloid stories – EU pet passports issued to UK owners will no longer be valid.  And never mind animals: what about people?  The rights of British nationals living in the EU will essentially be in the hands of the member hands.  All in all, the EU’s arrangements are designed to protect its own interests.  Why would it act otherwise? The financial services plans, for example, are a basic minimum.

All this none the less looks like a managed No Deal, albeit one of a very rudimentary kind.  And is well worth bearing in mind that these proposals, plus the UK’s own preparations, might not represent the end state were No Deal actually to happen.  Some Cabinet Ministers want to go further, and bung the EU some money for two years or so after Brexit day to ensure a transition-type period in which No Deal can be better prepared for.

We are dubious.  Two years from March 2018 takes us to the spring of 2020.  There is no political gain from moving the inevitable disruption of No Deal nearer a general election.  The planning pluses would have to be very clear to offset the electoral minuses.  We are bound to hear more of the scheme after the Christmas break.

But this morning, at any rate, we can see what a managed No Deal might look like: a lot better than a trade war, a lot worse than a good deal.  Lo and behold, we have a unicorn made flesh – just in time for Christmas.  Or, as the old saying doesn’t have it, if it looks like a unicorn and whinnies like a unicorn, then it probably isn’t a unicorn at all.