As the row over EU nationals dominates the opening of the Brexit negotiations, Theresa May is once again coming under attack for her refusal to offer them a unilateral guarantee that they be “allowed to stay”.
George Osborne has just alleged, via his newspaper, that the then-Home Secretary single-handedly stopped David Cameron from doing so in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote.
With the EU’s negotiators taking a dim view of what the Government considers to be a “big and generous” offer, the idea seems to be developing that the Prime Minister could have avoided the whole row by taking the high and generous path in the first place.
Yet this is not the case. In fact, by exposing the depth and complexity of the issues at involved the current dispute actually suggests three important countervailing points: that a broad-strokes guarantee would not have avoided the present showdown; that the EU made working out a detailed guarantee before now basically impossible; and that such concessions would have been an extremely ineffective, even counter-productive, negotiating tactic.
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Theresa May has to resolve many things as part of the Brexit process, and one of the most emotive has been what happens to 3.3 million EU citizens living in Britain and 1.2 million British expats living in Europe. The Prime Minister has come under fire from the moment she suggested their right to remain had yet to be secured, but indicated repeatedly that she hoped to do so. And now we find that the person stopping a deal being made is Angela Merkel.
The German Chancellor rejected the deal, although more than 20 EU nations had signalled their support, amid concerns that it would hand the UK a significant advantage during Brexit negotiations. “This is an ominous development that does not bode well for the talks to come”, we say in our leader. Why is she playing hardball? German voters tend to want her to be tough on Britain (58 per cent said so in a recent survey) as part of Brexit negotiations. Perhaps she wants to make a point of representing their wishes in order to help her chances of winning a fourth term as Chancellor next year.
The European elite has rallied behind her in the meantime. Donald Tusk, president of the European council, insisted it was British voters who had created “anxiety and uncertainty” for migrants by voting for Brexit, as well as Mrs May for not immediately triggering Article 50 to kickstart negotiations. His response has infuriated Brexiteers, as Iain Duncan Smith accused Tusk of “playing games with people’s lives”. Might Mrs May face more questions on this, and the Brexit negotiations, at PMQs today?
But another problem could soon crop up for Mrs May as she seeks to thrash out Brexit. And – fittingly for St Andrew’s Day – it could come from Scotland. The SNP remains anti-Brexit, even though it turns out the party spent less fighting to keep the UK in the EU than pub chain JD Wetherspoon did on persuading voters to leave. It may soon have quite the say over the timing of Brexit – in Holyrood and Westminster – if the Supreme Court concludes that Mrs May cannot trigger Article 50 without parliamentary approval. “Arguably, if the Scots parliament votes against triggering Article 50 nothing has actually changed: the UK as a whole decided on June 23 to leave the EU while Scotland wants to remain,” writes Philip Johnston in today’s paper. “But that wilfully ignores the toxic politics of all this and the huge symbolism of the two parliaments taking opposing positions on such a momentous matter…Will we eventually have to choose between staying in the EU (or in the single market at any rate) and losing the UK? That is something to ponder on St Andrew’s Day.”
The key moment of last night’s presidential debate (which you can read more about here) was Donald Trump’s refusal to say whether he would accept the result of the election. Theresa May will have to take on similar sentiments tonight at her first European Council by telling EU leaders over dinner that Britain’s vote to leave the EU should be respected. She will also hit out at suggestions from “certain quarters” (e.g. European Council president Donald Tusk) that Britain could end up staying in the EU after all.
EU leaders won’t be talking about Brexit in detail, as President Tusk isn’t asking any of them to respond to Mrs May’s remarks, which are listed as an item of “any other business”. They have decided on one detail about Brexit at least: what gender it is in their respective languages. France, Germany and Spain have gone for masculine; while Italy has broken ranks by saying it is feminine. But the summit will still be important for Mrs May, as a senior European diplomat told the Telegraph that it was a “big moment” for her, adding: “She absolutely needs to demonstrate that she is serious about pushing this negotiation forward in a win-win manner before it is too late to rescue the situation.” We’ll have all the details online as they come out of the summit.
The Prime Minister will know she is still at the early stage of the Brexit process, telling MPs yesterday that “these will be lengthy negotiations” that could last the two years mandated after triggering Article 50 “or more” if an extension is approved. Allister Heath thinks it is time the government needs to campaign for Brexit far more vigorously. “It needs to pretend that it invented the idea of Brexit, for that is what history and the electorate will eventually come to think. It must learn to believe passionately in it, and take all attacks on it personally,” he writes in today’s paper. “The Battle for Brexit must begin – again – now.”
Mrs May will at very least use tonight’s dinner to remind EU leaders that, whatever gender they use for it, Brexit means Brexit.
European leaders are meeting in Bratislava today to discuss issues facing the continent like immigration, terrorism and Brexit. But Theresa May has not been invited, so EU leaders hope to use their first summit without Britain in the room to show how they can forge ahead without them. So what does this mean for Britain’s Brexit process? Our Europe Editor Peter Foster has found in his report this morning that both sides are hardening their battle lines. Senior EU figures, he reports, are determined to make Britain give up on Brexit by making negotiations as hard as possible, telling the paper that they believe Theresa May will pull back once she realises the “reality of the bureaucratic nightmare” and the “Insane act of economic self-harm” awaiting the nation. Their strategy, in the words of one British official, is to “make us change our minds”, but Britain’s negotiators are warning them that it is “unlikely” to succeed.
The EU elite march on, but they can’t conceal their hurt in response to the Brexit vote. Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker claimed during an online Q&A that British politicians are to blame for Brexit because they have spent 40 years spreading “lies” about the union. European Council President Donald Tusk, meanwhile, insisted to EU leaders that they must “stick to the Treaty” on issues like free movement in order to show citizens that “it is a good thing to be a member of the Union” in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave. We’ll keep you updated on our website about what emerges from today’s summit.
The pressure remains on Theresa May in the meantime to make the most of Brexit, with Owen Paterson outlining in today’s paper how Britain’s fishing and farming can prosper from it. Public concern about immigration is unlikely to dissipate after news that Britain faces more than 40,000 asylum applications this year as migrants increasingly resort to using “covert” methods to get into European countries. She has yet to be able to get down to the detail with EU partners of course as Article 50 has yet to be invoked. But with both sides showing little interest in compromise, one thing is clear: intense negotiations await her.