Brexit Diary: What does Donald Tusk mean by “realism”?

26th September 2017

Today Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, came to London.

After the meeting, Tusk’s remarks were:

I feel cautiously optimistic about the constructive and more realistic tone of the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence and of our discussion today.

This shows that the philosophy of “having a cake and eating it” is finally coming to an end, or at least I hope so.

And that’s good news.

But of course no-one will ever tell me that Brexit is a good thing because, as I have always said, in fact Brexit is only about damage control, and I didn’t change my opinion.

As you know, we will discuss our future relations with the United Kingdom once there is so-called “sufficient progress”.

The two sides are working hard at it. But if you asked me and if today Member States asked me, I would say there is no “sufficient progress” yet. But we will work on it.

And this was his tweet:-

The most significant thing, of course, is that the “sufficient progress” requirement has not been met.  This means the future relationship will not be discussed in the next (October) negotiation round at least.

But this is not the first time Tusk has talked about Brexit and realism.

This is from last September, in the months after the referendum vote:

More importantly, this is from when Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech expressly affirmed that the UK would be leaving the Single Market and Customs Union:

So the UK was becoming more “realistic” in January, and again is becoming more “realistic” now.

Over time, the speech of Tusk last October becomes more significant.  I have referred to it in my FT piece today (on transition arrangements).  It is worth (re-)reading regularly as Brexit continues.

In that speech, this passage in particular sticks in the mind as what Tusk means by “real” when he calls thing “realistic” (emphasis added):

The brutal truth is that Brexit will be a loss for all of us.

There will be no cakes on the table. For anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar.

If you ask me if there is any alternative to this bad scenario, I would like to tell you that yes, there is.

And I think it is useless to speculate about “soft Brexit” because of all the reasons I’ve mentioned.

These would be purely theoretical speculations.

In my opinion, the only real alternative to a “hard Brexit” is “no Brexit”.

Even if today hardly anyone believes in such a possibility.

We will conduct the negotiations in good faith, defend the interests of the EU 27, minimise the costs and seek the best possible deal for all.

But as I have said before, I am afraid that no such outcome exists that will benefit either side.

Of course it is and can only be for the UK to assess the outcome of the negotiations and determine if Brexit is really in their interest.

Paraphrasing Hannah Arendt’s words: “a full understanding of all the consequences of the political process is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history”. 

In other words, Tusk believes the UK becomes more “realistic” the closer it comes to accepting that the only “real” alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit.

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Brexit diary – After Florence

25th September 2017

So Theresa May’s Florence speech has come and gone.

What should we make of it?

In respect of the Brexit negotiations, the speech has made little difference.  The position before the Florence speech is more-or-less the position today.  The only concrete proposal, that of a security treaty, was welcome but not directly relevant to the current negotiations.

That said, the speech has not made anything worse in respect of the Brexit negotiations.  It was “cautiously welcomed” by EU leaders who all then added that particular details were needed.

As such, it would not be fair to call the speech a failure; it was more that it was not really anything at all.

And in respect of May keeping the current cabinet together, the speech was a success.  The cabinet stagggers on for another few days, perhaps weeks.

But if the speech was not in itself a failure, the speech was about failure.

The request – which may or may not be granted by EU27 – for a two year transition on current terms is an implicit admission of the UK government’s failure to date on Brexit.

The silence in the speech on what ultimate relationship the UK is to have with the EU after Brexit is an implicit admission that the government does not know (or cannot agree) on what that ultimate relationship should be.

A year ago, in Birmingham in her conference speech, May said (emphasis added):

“There was a good reason why I said – immediately after the referendum – that we should not invoke Article Fifty before the end of this year. That decision means we have the time to develop our negotiating strategy and avoid setting the clock ticking until our objectives are clear and agreed. And it has also meant that we have given some certainty to businesses and investors. Consumer confidence has remained steady. Foreign investment in Britain has continued. Employment is at a record high, and wages are on the up. There is still some uncertainty, but the sky has not fallen in, as some predicted it would: our economy remains strong.

“So it was right to wait before triggering Article Fifty. But it is also right that we should not let things drag on too long. Having voted to leave, I know that the public will soon expect to see, on the horizon, the point at which Britain does formally leave the European Union. So let me be absolutely clear. There will be no unnecessary delays in invoking Article Fifty. We will invoke it when we are ready. And we will be ready soon. We will invoke Article Fifty no later than the end of March next year.”

The words in bold were said six months before the notification was made.

Perhaps six months seemed a long enough time, a fair enough and plausible deadline.

But the words in bold turned out not to be true.

The UK was not ready in March 2017.

The UK had not developed a negotiating strategy.

The UK’s objectives were not clear and agreed.

But May set the clock ticking anyway.

And now the prime minister is reduced to booking a room in Florence, without a view and at taxpayers expense, to beg EU leaders, who were invited but did not attend, for a two year extension because May had made the Article 50 notification before she was ready.

The speech might have gone worse: the Brexit negotiations are still continuing and the cabinet is still intact.

But is a speech which should never have had to have been made.

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Brexit diary – the “process” phase is now firmly in place

13th September 2017

With the Withdrawal Bill passing the “second reading” vote (see my FT post here) and the Brexit negotiation talks now passed their third round, Brexit is now firmly in (what can be called) its “process” phase.

Until the second reading vote, it was open to the UK government to start again with a Bill with less wide-ranging scope.  But now the government is committed to this approach.

I plan to write later today at the FT on the significance of Brexit now being a process thing, with all the preliminary manoeuvers  (or lack of manoevres) out of the way.

If you want to follow both the Brexit negotiations and the Withdrawal Bill aspects of the process, do have a look at my (updated) resource page on the negotiations and my guide to the withdrawal bill.

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And finally

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Brexit Diary: May in Copenhagen, Davis in Parliament, negotiation style, parliamentary votes, Ireland, etc

This is a round-up of recent Brexit news and commentary.  Commentary is grouped under the relevant “dimension” of Brexit.

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Brexit news

Prime Minister’s statement in Copenhagen of 10 October 2016

Next Steps in Leaving the European Union, statement by Brexit Minister David Davis to House of Commons, followed by debate

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The UK/EU relationship dimension

 Britain’s Brexit delusions, by Paul Taylor at Politico

Britain’s raucous negotiating style will not help Brexit, by Alan Beattie at FT

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The parliamentary dimension

Brexit means Brexit, but Parliament is Parliament. MPs must vote on how we leave, by James Kirkup at Daily Telegraph

On the sidelining of Parliament: The Brexit Secretary’s statement to the Commons, by Professor Mark Elliott at the Public Law for Everyone blog

Guardian editorial – The Guardian view on Brexit negotiations: MPs matter

Parliament should be central to Brexit, not marginal, by me at FT

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The Northern Irish dimension

This Brexit plan will divide Britain and Ireland once more, by Diarmaid Ferriter at Guardian

 

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Brexit Diary: recent news on the “high politics” of Brexit in Westminster and Whitehall

(These Brexit Diary posts collect recent news and commentary.)

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Today’s Brexit diary contains recent news on the “high politics” of Westminster and Whitehall.

Brexit is not inevitable, says former civil service chief, Guardian, 27 August 2016

Few things are inevitable in human affairs, and this was a statement of the obvious by O’Donnell.  This observation, however, was useful as a peg to hang the civil service stories below.

The following two links are also not really news: the government’s long-standing position is that Article 50 can be triggered without a parliamentary vote.  This contention will be tested by the High Court in October, with a likely Supreme COurt hearing in December.

Theresa May will trigger Brexit negotiations without Commons vote Telegraph 27 August 2016

Theresa May ‘acting like Tudor monarch’ by denying MPs a Brexit vote Guardian 28 August 2016

The following links are news.  What is significant is that there is still no settled government position on the shape of Brexit.  There can be no surprise that in the absence of such a policy, splits are emerging.

Theresa May calls Brexit meeting amid reports of single market split Guardian, 28 August 2016

Chancellor blamed as cabinet splits over single market Sunday Times, 28 August 2016

The prime minister tells civil servants to “get on” with implementing a policy which does not exist yet:

Theresa May tells pro-EU civil servants to get on with the job of delivering Brexit Telegraph 28 August 2016

The prime minister also tells her cabinet to come up with a Brexit policy:

Theresa May, the Brexit enforcer, orders her Cabinet ministers to come up with blueprint for EU exit Telegraph 28 August 2016

And already the civil service (on whom the success of Brexit will depend) are being attacked for not implementing a policy which does not exist yet:

Whitehall must not try to block Brexit Telegraph, 28 August 2016

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Brexit Diary: the clash of political will and reality, continued

22nd August 2016

(These Brexit Diary posts collect recent news and commentary.)

The story of Brexit is about the clash of political will (the referendum result and express government policy) and the realities of trade, devolution, and government capability.  All because the government wants something to happen, it cannot just be made to happen.

In respect of trade, here are a couple of interesting, well-informed but sceptical  pieces.   First, George Magnus – one of the best follows on Twitter on Brexit and trade questions, at the Sunday Times:

And this is an excellent blogpost by Jeegar Kakkad on whether the UK could emulate the Canada-EU deal:

On devolution, there is news of another Article 50 claim in Northern Ireland – and you should ask anyone who confidently assures you “Brexit will happen” to explain how these Good Friday Agreement issues will be addressed.  It may well be that they cannot be dealt with.

Back in Whitehall: it is reported there will be 32 senior civil servants at the Department for Brexit.   The Observer assesses the unpromising start of the Brexit ministers, and the Telegraph describes how the ministers are fighting over space and resources.

The frustration at the lack of movement is becoming louder.  The Spectator announces it is time to start defending Brexit, and the Telegraph reports Iain Duncan Smith is demanding that Brexit talks as soon as possible.  In the Guardian, Fabian Zuleeg says Brussels is also getting “impatient”.

And so what is the solution? In the Sunday Times:

Theresa May will harness the spirit of Britain’s Olympic “world beaters” to draw up a blueprint for Brexit — as Team GB’s performance in Rio was hailed as the greatest yet by a British team.

A senior cabinet minister has revealed the government will adopt the same approach of backing “excellence” that has catapulted Team GB to Olympic glory as the master plan for economic prosperity outside the EU.

This must be the daftest thing yet said on Brexit, by either side, and against tough competition.  If the government believes the “blueprint for Brexit” is somehow “backing” winners, it should be remembered that this is only two months after government backed the losing side in referendum…

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Brexit Diary: more delays and difficulties

1st August 2016

These Brexit Diary posts collect recent news and commentary.

News

Lords could delay Brexit decision, says Conservative peer.

Britain to ‘leverage’ £11bn of foreign aid to build new trade deals after Brexit – possibly unlawful, certainy desperate, and largely irrelevant, given UK’s main trading partners are not those in receipt of aid.  And “leverage” is not a verb.

Commentary

Britain should look to leave the EU as swiftly and simply as possible, writes Bernard Jenkin in the FT – not a detailed piece, and the comments underneath are the most brutal I have ever seen in the FT.

Civil Service World: Theresa May’s Brexit shake-up of Whitehall sending “mixed messages” to the EU – on the Whitehall confusion caused by the three Brexit departments.

ICTSD: Nothing simple about UK regaining WTO status post-Brexit, by former WTO staffer Peter Ungphakorn – important piece on an overlooked difficulty.

LSE Blogs: Return to the Commonwealth? UK-Africa trade after Brexit will not be straightforward, by Peg Murray-Evans – another overlooked difficulty.

Institute for Government: Leaving the EU customs union: what is involved, by Daniel Thornton – on the the implications of Fox’s favoured approach.

A misleadingly titled piece on Michel Barnier at the Guardian by Syed Kamall is worth reading – the title refers to Banier, not the UK’s Brexiteer ministers.

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Brexit Diary: delays and difficulties

31st July 2016

These Brexit Diary posts collect recent news and commentary.

News

Theresa May confirms Crown dependencies will take part in Brexit talks – this will not speed things up.

Commentary

A good piece by Alan Riley on “Hard Brexit” vs “Soft Brexit”.  He explains why neither option is the easy one.

At Quora, Paul Mainwood sets out a plausible case for Brexit being delayed endlessly: The art is to make it look as though it’s not collapsing.

And for those who said we were never warned of the difficulties, this by Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska from April(!) reads well today on the difficulties of Brexit.

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Brexit Diary: UK’s six tasks, and the need for French lessons

28th July 2016

The immensity of what needs to be done by the UK is becoming plain.  One excellent post on this is Six Brexit deals that Theresa May must strike by Charles Grant.  government. 

And, in the meantime, it seems Michel Barnier is not going to make it easy for the UK.

 

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