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MPs yesterday voted by 327 to 126 to reject an amendment by the House of Lords to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to prioritise remaining in the European Economic Area (EEA) in negotiations. 90 Labour MPs defied the party line to abstain on this vote, with 75 MPs supporting the amendment, and 15 voting to reject it. Six members of the Labour party frontbench resigned from their positions in order to vote on the amendment, including Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Laura Smith. The House of Commons also overturned Lords’ amendments which sought to make negotiating a UK-EU customs union a key British objective, after the government tabled a compromise amendment to outline the steps they are taking to negotiate a customs “arrangement.”
Separately, a government spokesperson yesterday said it was a “fair assessment” to say that clause C of the alternative “meaningful vote” amendment, which would allow parliament to direct the government in Brexit negotiations after mid-February 2019 if no deal had yet been reached, was not up for discussion. Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, Theresa May said, “What I agreed yesterday is that as the bill goes back to the Lords we would have further discussions with colleagues over those concerns. I have agreed this morning with the Brexit secretary that we will bring forward an amendment in the Lords.” She added, “I cannot countenance parliament being able to overturn the will of the British people.”
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The president of the Confederation of British Industry, Paul Dreschler, yesterday warned, “If we do not have a customs union, there are sectors of manufacturing society in the UK which risk becoming extinct,” suggesting the UK automotive industry in particular would face significant disruption. He argued, “There’s zero evidence that independent trade deals will provide any economic benefit to the UK that’s material. It’s a myth.” Dreschler also said that the lack of clarity on the UK government Brexit strategy was affecting business investment decisions.
Europe Minister Helen McEntee yesterday said Ireland will not demand a freeze in the Brexit negotiations if no breakthrough on the border issue is reached at the next EU summit at the end of the month. Meanwhile, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar signaled he was prepared to discuss the latest British proposal to guarantee no hard border emerges on the island on Ireland post-Brexit, but warned, “I think the UK needs to make decisions and make some choices. They continually seem to have internal debates.”
Bloomberg Brexit Bulletin
Speaking at a press conference alongside Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer yesterday said he had spoken to the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, “and it was his wish that Rome, Vienna and Berlin should work together at the interior minister level in the areas of security, fighting terrorism and the core issue of immigration.” Seehofer added, “I accepted that… And we will push ahead with it.” On a similar line, Kurz said, “In our view, we need an axis of the willing in the fight against illegal migration,” welcoming the “good cooperation that we want to develop between Rome, Vienna and Berlin.”
The announcement comes as tensions between Italy and France have escalated following the French government’s criticism of Italy’s decision not to offer a safe port to migrant rescue boat Aquarius. The Italian Economy Minister, Giovanni Tria, yesterday postponed a meeting with his French counterpart Bruno Le Maire, which should have seen the two discussing reform of Eurozone governance ahead of a EU leaders’ summit in June. A meeting scheduled for Friday between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and French President Emmanuel Macron is reportedly also at risk of been cancelled, while the Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero yesterday warned that the words of the French government risk “compromising” relations between the two countries.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid is due to announce tomorrow changes to the UK’s immigration rules that would allow thousands of highly-skilled migrants to come to the UK, the Daily Telegraph reports. The new system would exclude non-EU doctors and nurses from the “tier 2” visa cap, currently set at 20,700 people per year. A Government source is reported saying that this scheme is part of the “long-term plan” for the NHS. Moreover, businesses and employers will be able to recruit an extra 8,000 skilled migrants per year, increasing the yearly cap by 40 percent. Professions that qualify for working visas will also be reviewed, for the first time in five years. New professions qualifying would include IT experts, engineers and teachers.
The Daily Telegraph
In a speech to the European Parliament yesterday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, “More and more Europe isn’t the answer to the many problems that people face in their daily lives. For some, ‘ever closer union’ is still a goal in itself. Not for me. ’Unity’ and ‘ever closer union’ are not the same.” He added, , “I believe that a truly strong EU must embody ‘less is more’.” Rutte called for Europe to “stand united” in a changing geopolitical order, while adding that “the only positive effect [of Brexit is] that it has made the other 27 member states even more aware of the importance of unity and working together.”On the future EU budget, he commented, “To the Netherlands, it’s only logical that the [EU] budget should shrink after Brexit. And within that smaller budget it’s only logical that wealthy states should pay more — but not disproportionately so. The Netherlands is willing to pay its share, but countries with a comparable level of prosperity must make a comparable net contribution per capita.” Rutte added, “At present, agriculture and structural funds swallow up 70 percent of the budget…Spending less in these areas will make room for new priorities. We also need to reform the very substance of these policy areas, to make them fit for the future.”
Government of the Netherlands
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas yesterday said, “We must heal the rifts that have emerged in our [European] Union in recent years… Germany must also demonstrate flexibility in order for this to succeed. The line between fidelity to principles and stubbornness is sometimes a thin one. We must also learn to see Europe more through the eyes of other Europeans.” He added, “Know-it-all finger pointing on the part of Berlin certainly achieves less than intelligent policies geared towards achieving a balancing of interests… Instead of categorising people as good or bad Europeans, we should take note of the fact that the objective of ever closer union for the countries of Europe is not shared to the same extent by all Member States.”
On the EU’s role in the world, Maas said, “The world order that we once knew and had become accustomed to no longer exists,” adding that there were serious doubts over whether the EU and the US are “allies in the fight for multilateralism and a rules-based world.” Maas said that Germany’s new seat in the UN Security Council for 2019/2020 would be “a European membership” and see the country speak “on behalf of all EU Member States.” He also advocated “ending the curse of unanimity” in EU foreign policy decision making, calling the system “a blatant invitation to foreign powers to divide us and to make use of individual Member States’ potential to impose a blockade.“ On the French proposal for a European Intervention Initiative, he said that the UK should be offered to opportunity to join.
German Foreign Office
The European Commission yesterday presented its proposal for a €13 billion European Defence Fund as a part of its Multi-Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021-2027. The objective of the fund is to “increase the EU’s strategic autonomy, bolster the EU’s ability to protect its citizens and make the EU a stronger global actor.” It will “promote cooperation among Member States in producing defence” technology as well as finance “projects which help make the EU safer and which correspond to priorities agreed by Member States.” The Commission’s Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, Jyrki Katainen, said, “For the first time in the history of the European Union, a part of the European budget is devoted to investing collectively to develop new technologies and equipment to protect our people. The European Defence Fund is a true European tool to encourage joint investments and amplify Member States’ efforts in defence.”
Elsewhere, the Financial Times reports that the Commission is planning to strictly restrict third-country participation in the Fund, which would limit the possibility of UK companies of being involved in EU defence projects post-Brexit.
Speaking at the same press conference, EU Foreign Affairs High Representative Federica Mogherini proposed a European Peace Facility to “cover the common costs of all EU military missions and operations… [which] would let us contribute to military peace operations led by other international actors…[and] would allow us to support the armed forces of partner countries with infrastructure, equipment or military assistance, when the Council decides to do so.” Mogherini added, “The Facility is proposed as an off-budget Fund of 10.5 billion euros over seven years of the next MFF.”
European Commission I
European Commission I
European External Action Service
The European Parliament yesterday gave its green light to a draft European Council decision that would reduce the number of MEPs from 751 to 705 after Brexit. 46 of the 73 seats currently held by British MEPs would be left in a reserve and could be allocated to countries joining the EU in the future. Co-rapporteur Danuta Hübner commented, “Engaging citizens in the democratic process is of utmost importance, and I believe that the new composition of our House will motivate our citizens to become more active participants in our democratic process.” EU leaders will now have to give their approval at the June European Council.
In an opinion piece for the EUobserver, Open Europe’s Leopold Traugott and Julian Göpffarth of the London School of Economics write that German conservatives should not try to emulate the politics of Austrian right-wing Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. “For many German conservatives, Kurz embodies everything they want their party to become once Merkel is gone, which likely will by 2021 at the latest,” they explain, before warning that “as attractive as this approach may sound to some, it ultimately is flawed and short-sighted. It will neither be an electoral boon to German conservatives, nor a viable solution to the country’s long-term challenges.” They write, “While a shift to the right may help Merkel’s [Christian Democratic Union], and their sister party the Bavarian [Christian Social Union], win back some of their former conservative voters, it surely will not be enough to push the Alternative fur Deutschland out of parliament,” and would come at the cost of many centrist voters abandoning the parties. Göpffarth and Traugott conclude, “The departure of Merkel by 2021 will offer the opportunity for a credible reorientation of German conservative politics. This must not be squandered by pandering to a regressive right-wing.”