The European Parliament decision on Brexit – not enough progress

Today the European Parliament passed its second Resolution on Brexit. The resolution re-stated the position of the European Union on the key issues and stated that insufficient progress has been made to move on to the next stage of the negotiations. This is not good news for anybody but it is nonetheless a statement of fact.

Council President Donald Tusk had warned that insufficient progress is being made in the negotiations. His thoughts had been echoed by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who suggested last week that Brexit talks could take months to move to the next phase. Even the Conservative Government seems to understand that there is very little has been achieved thus far.

But, though the clock is ticking, this is how negotiations go - there has been some progress and who, after all, didn’t expect this to go to the wire? Today’s Resolution calls for commitments made as part of Theresa May’s Florence speech to translate into tangible changes to the UK’s position. Now is the time for concrete proposals.

On any financial settlement, Theresa May has set out a series of principles, sometimes coded, that are a basis to settle accounts but she can’t name a figure, as it is certain to trigger a renewed round of cabinet infighting. Her inability to control her own party is hindering the UK’s negotiating position. She must regain control or go. In an earlier blog I wrote that it was time to grow up, stop posturing and start negotiating seriously.  The sooner those in and around Number 10 accept the reality that you don’t build a ‘deep and special relationship’ by walking away from your debts, the better. In the meantime, the EU awaits concrete proposals from the UK. On this evidence, they may be waiting some time.

On citizens’ rights, it is remarkable that the Conservative Government seems to have so little regard to the future of UK citizens living in the other 27 European Union member states. This is the area in which least progress has been made yet where the solution is most obvious.

There are 3.2 million EU citizens resident in the UK, but the number of people affected by uncertainty over Brexit is far higher. Those that have chosen to move freely in both directions within the EU have become partners, lovers, friends, relatives and colleagues to many millions more. The Conservative government must wake up to the fact that citizens’ rights are reciprocal. How the government chooses to treat EU citizens living in the UK is likely to impact on the treatment UK citizens receive abroad. 1.2million UK citizens living in Europe know that.

The idea that the Home Office can competently process 3 million individual residency applications and have a new immigration IT system working by 2019 is laughable. Those that have already received Home Office deportation letters - despite having lived and worked in the UK for many years - will be rightly skeptical. It’s no wonder Tory plans have been dismissed by EU officials as “magical thinking”.

Lastly, on Northern Ireland, there is broad agreement that there should be no physical border within the island of Ireland. The problem will be achieving that. For those of us old enough to have lived through the troubles, safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement is paramount, and any hardening of the border places it in jeopardy. The EU had hoped for substance when Theresa May delivered her Florence speech. It didn’t get it. Her assertion that she would not accept physical infrastructure at the border was not backed up by any suggestion as to how that might work in practice. What she seems to favour is some sort of magical IT solution to the customs issues. Their faith is touching but far from practical.

But once again, Mrs May has to deal with her unreliable allies. Hard-line Brexiteers and the DUP will make it difficult for Theresa May to deliver the obvious solution: Northern Ireland must remain within the single market and the customs union. It is also the only workable solution. The people of Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain. There is no mandate to pull them out of the single market or customs union and even less appetite for endangering a lasting peace.

We find ourselves in a negotiation where a Prime Minister lacking in any kind of authority cannot break free of the infighting of her party; where a substantial minority on her own side want negotiations to fail so they can achieve the ‘cliff edge’ outcome they desire and where the rest of her party are held hostage. This, more than anything else, is what is putting the UK’s national interest at risk. It has been thus ever since Mr Cameron’s disastrous decision to hold a referendum.