Four PA Brexit Update – 8 June

European Governments have had a rough week. Just as Italy’s emerged in acrimony, with insults from Brussels ringing in their ears, Spain’s fell. How the latter will affect the UK’s progress on Gibraltar in Brexit negotiations remains to be seen.

Among the rest of the EU27, divides have been emerging on the Commission’s negotiating stance. This has always been the aim of British negotiators, but the divisions do not fall along neat lines. Whilst France backed the UK on access to the Galileo satellite project, which is opposed by Germany and the Commission, it opposed continued UK access to criminals’ DNA data, which Germany supports. It’s going to be a long summer…

Debating terms
There is no term more meaningless than ‘hard Brexit’. Its various incarnations as a term of abuse have included not being in the single market, not being in the customs union, not being in a customs union or partnership, a limited or no transition period, not having border facilitation, not having tariff-free trade, trading on WTO-terms and having no deals of any kind whatsoever. For Remainers, ‘soft Brexit’ is whatever the opposite happens to be at the time. And for the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, being described as ‘hard’ has an appealingly macho ring, while the ambiguity avoids ever needing to be clear about how things would work.

It’s one reason why the quality of public debate has been so poor. Another is the complexity and technicalities that lurk behind every issue, which few at Westminster or the wider media can be bothered to confront. Why struggle with horrendous, unfamiliar detail, when you can just denigrate others for being on the wrong side of a hard/soft divide?

This week has seen the birth of an equally meaningless, but potentially more productive label. Say hello to ‘sensible Brexit’. Another term of art, this one means something that less than ten Conservative MPs will vote against, from the Europhile rebels like Anna Soubry to the more absolutist members of the European Research Group (ERG). Without any guarantee that Labour will support or abstain on the Government’s deal, a desire for compromise is taking hold.

For outreach purposes, it’s unfortunate that the proponents of ‘sensible Brexit’ are all members of the Tory Reform Group, who are viewed with distinct caution by Brexiteers. For the purpose of neutralising the rebels, it could scarcely be better. This perhaps explains why the Prime Minister invited Justine Greening, Amber Rudd and Damian Green round to Downing Street for tea.

A great advantage of the new term, however, is that it permits a more nuanced debate. Asking ‘What is sensible?’ requires examining options, not pinning tribal identity tags on them. We can all hope this catches on.

Buffers and bluffers
Some options are more sensible than others and the hybrid model for a ‘New Customs Partnership’ has struggled to find supporters. Meanwhile, two new options have emerged for MaxFac. Michael Gove is apparently proposing an agricultural zone solution, keeping Northern Ireland aligned with the EU on animal and food standards, which would otherwise pose the greatest issue for the border. 

David Davis is reported to have gone much further, proposing a full UK-EU dual regulatory regime in Northern Ireland that would parallel Luxemburg’s, with a 10-mile buffer zone to exempt local businesses. This appears to fail both the ‘What is sensible?’ and the ‘What will the DUP support?’ tests, never mind the Commission’s. Its real purpose may simply be moving negotiations forward.

“No Man is wise at all Times, or is without his blind Side”
The Erasmus+ student exchange programme is named after Rotterdam’s famous medieval scholar. Fears about British students being excluded after Brexit have received widespread, uncritical coverage. Scepticism on the level of Erasmus himself was probably in order.

Under the Commission’s new proposals, Erasmus+ will be opened to any non-EU countries prepared to pay their share of its costs. The European University Association suggests the same arrangement is likely to be used for the Horizon programme for scientific research, despite another negative story in The Guardian on Wednesday suggesting penalties would apply. Both are relatively minor aspects of the future relationship, but revealing in their own way.