19 October 2017

Theresa May to address European Council summit

Prime Minister Theresa May today travels to Brussels for a two-day meeting of the European Council. The leaders of the member states of the EU are expected to discuss wide-ranging plans for EU reform and review the status of the Brexit negotiations. The Prime Minister is to make a speech over dinner with the Council, in which she will give an update on the negotiations and emphasize the conciliatory tone of her Florence speech. The Prime Minister will call for a “clear commitment to swift progress on both sides”, according to a senior UK government official.

Last night the Prime Minister said that an agreement on citizens’ rights is “within touching distance” and that “with flexibility and creativity on both sides, I am confident that we conclude discussions… in the coming weeks.” In a goodwill gesture, May penned an open letter to more than 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, telling all those who currently live in the country “will be able to stay.” She assured readers that, “Some have accused us of treating EU nationals as bargaining chips. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Meanwhile, The Times reports that the main sticking point between Britain and Brussels over the divorce bill is a row over EU pensions. Brussels has demanded about €11 billion to cover the pension liabilities of retired EU officials; Britain argues that the wrong rate has been used to calculate this, and that the true figure is closer to €3.5 billion.

An open letter organised by the Leave means Leave campaign to the Prime Minister writes, “It has become increasingly clear that the European Commission is deliberately deferring discussions on the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU27 post-Brexit…If at the European Council this week, the EU continues to refuse to discuss the future framework for a trade relationship, we should formally declare that we are assuming that we will be subject to WTO rules from 30th March 2019.” The letter has been signed by four former Cabinet ministers: Lord Lawson, Peter Lilley, John Redwood  and Owen Paterson.

Elsewhere, speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer said, “Talking of walking away at this stage is irresponsible. We need to close the gap there is on phase one.” He added, “The situation we’re in is very serious, because this is the first deadline, and it looks as though it’s going to be missed…what we want is both sides to move, both sides to be flexible.” This comes as both Starmer and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn today head to Brussels for meetings with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and the President of the European parliament, Antonio Tajani.

Meanwhile, European leaders are expected to reject Theresa may’s plea to extend negotiations to trade talks, while talking up the PM’s efforts in an attempt not to excessively  weaken her position domestically.  According to a London-based EU diplomat, “It is Germany not France that is taking the toughest line. It is partly they have a more legalistic approach, but they also think British politics is so unstable, concessions at this stage are premature. They think Theresa May’s position is not very strong.”

There is not expected to be any declaration of “sufficient progress” on the withdrawal agreement for the two parties to move onto discussions regarding trade. However, Reuters reports a German official as saying that Brexit negotiations have “made a lot of progress” despite the fact that “at the moment, the assessment is it is not ‘sufficient.’” “The official also said, “We expect that the government leaders will give a strong signal for us to prepare internally for the second phase – the future relationship.” The official played down talk of a ‘no-deal’ outcome, assuring reporters that all sides are aware that a deal ultimately is needed and nobody says the outstanding issues can’t be solved.

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EU (Withdrawal) Bill may not reach committee stage until November

The BBC reports that the government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill may not be debated in Parliament until November. An official source said that the committee stage is delayed because there “is not enough political agreement yet.” Over 300 amendments to the Bill have so far been tabled, with many of them put forward by Conservative backbenchers.

Speaking on the BBC’s Daily Politics, Brexit Minister Robin Walker said that the Bill would be debated “within weeks”, but the Shadow Brexit Secretary, Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, said, “This is further proof that the government’s Brexit strategy is in paralysis. The negotiations [with the EU] are in deadlock and now a crucial piece of legislation is facing further delay. There is chaos at the heart of government. Theresa May cannot unite her Cabinet or her party behind this deeply flawed Bill.” Open Europe’s Anders Jay has written a blog on the Bill, arguing that its passage is paramount, and compromise on all sides is crucial.

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European trade groups demand urgent agreement on transition period

European businesses have called for an urgent agreement on a period of transition after Brexit, to avoid a “cliff edge” scenario when the UK leaves the EU. Fourteen trade and business organizations have signed a statement warning that failure to reach a deal would send “costly shock waves” through established trade flows and supply chains. Signatories include the European Shippers Council, the Community of European Railways, the European Association of Automotive Suppliers, the World Shipping Council and the UK’s Freight Transport Association.

The group has urged both the UK and the EU to ensure a “seamless transition” after March 2019 which preserves the commercial and regulatory status quo. They write, “Big bang or ‘cliff edge’ situations must be avoided… the EU and the UK should recognise their mutual self interest in finding a way to preserve [existing] links and the legal certainty that is vital for companies… on both sides of the Channel.”

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German coalition negotiations officially begin

The first exploratory talks of German coalition negotiations have begun, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right union of CDU and CSU having met separately with the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Green Party yesterday. Negotiations are expected to last until December at least, as there are stark programmatic differences between the four parties. CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber warned “We should not delude ourselves: these discussions will be very hard”, with deputy party leader Volker Bouffier adding he expects the toughest coalition negotiations in the history of Germany’s Federal Republic.

First talks between CDU, CSU and FDP ended positively, with FDP General Secretary Nicola Beer stating that the meeting took place in a “sober and solution-focused atmosphere” and resulted in “good first steps on this way [to forming a government].” On Tuesday, FDP chairman Christian Lindner had declared “Anything would be better than keeping the chancellery and the finance ministry in the hands of the CDU”. Green Party Federal Whip Michael Kellner said his party had “a good talk, a constructive talk” with CDU and CSU.

The Free Democrats and the Green Party are meeting for bilateral talks today, with a joint meeting of all four parties scheduled for Friday.

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New survey: 60% of the public want a reduction in immigration levels

A new survey by Ipsos MORI on public attitudes towards immigration has found that despite an increase in positive perceptions of immigration between 2015 and 2016, the proportion of people who want immigration levels to be reduced remains the same – 60% of respondents said they want a reduction in numbers.

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EU Agriculture Commissioner warns of increased threat of a “cliff-edge” Brexit

The European Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, yesterday said, “Unfortunately, we are now so close to the cliff edge of a hard Brexit that we can see the drop right in front of our feet…We have now missed the October deadline for moving to the next phase of negotiations. Only serious engagement and realism can deliver an agreement to move forward by December.” He noted internal tensions within the UK government, saying, “The unfortunate reality is that the London-London negotiation is still raging – and if anything, intensifying.” On the topic of the island of Ireland, he said, “It is painfully clear that the UK government is not going to propose workable solutions for the benefit of the island of Ireland. Indeed, the low priority afforded to Northern Ireland by London is disheartening, to say the least.”

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Tusk proposes more EU summits in bid to move EU forward

European Council President Donald Tusk has proposed conducting more summits over the next two years in a bid to relaunch the EU. At the summits, Tusk outlines that the ‘Leaders’ Agenda’ will be discussed in the margins which will be organised on the basis of “Decision Notes.” In his invitation letter ahead of the EU Council summit today, Tusk writes, “These Decision Notes will report on our differences, precisely describing the scope of conflict and thus allowing us to hold a serious, political discussion. The aim will be to break any deadlock. If the first discussion does not succeed, we will need to decide whether to make another attempt at solving the issue, or if the only way forward is enhanced cooperation among the willing countries, as provided for by the Treaties.” He adds, “I am very happy with your willingness to accelerate our work and overcome the sense of powerlessness.”

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57% of Europeans believe EU membership is “a good thing” for their country

A new survey by Kantar Public finds that 57% of Europeans believe their country’s membership of the EU is “a good thing”, against 12% – the lowest score recorded in a decade – who thought it was bad. 64% of respondents said their county had benefitted from EU membership. Irish respondents proved most positive, with 90% saying the same. A majority of UK respondents (55%) also agreed. The survey also found that 47% of Europeans believe “their voice counts in the EU”, the highest level recorded since 2009. 48% believe the opposite, the lowest score in the same period.

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Spanish government says regional elections could defuse Catalonia independence stand-off

The Spanish government on Wednesday called on Catalonia’s authorities to hold a snap election as a solution to the political impasse over this month’s independence referendum, and an opportunity for the region’s leaders to climb down from discussions of secession and “return to legality”. Having nearly reached Madrid’s deadline to officially abandon secession plans, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy issued a last-minute call for Catalonia’s regional president to act with “good judgment” and “balance” or he would have to take steps that “no doubt it would be better not to take.” Madrid has given until 10 am today (9am UK time) to drop plans for independence.

Nevertheless, the suggestions have been met with defiance, and speaking to reporters in Brussels on Wednesday, Catalonia’s minister for foreign relations, Raul Romeva, said that the regional government “will not back down” if Spain suspends its autonomy. He said the aim of an independent republic was their “proposal” in any dialogue with Madrid, and added, “Elections are not on the table now.”

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