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Media Hub

UK and EU will 'rip each other apart' in Brexit trade talks, says French foreign minister

3 hours 32 minutes ago
Jean-Yves Le Drian
French minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned the UK to expect a tough trade battle

The UK and the European Union will “rip each other apart” in the talks on a future trade deal, according to a top French politician.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, his country’s foreign minister, also said Britain is unlikely to achieve its aim of signing a free trade agreement by the end of the year.

Speaking at the Munich security conference, he said the two sides were a long way apart on a range of issues.

Mr Le Drian said: "I think that on trade issues and the mechanism for future relations, which we are going to start on, we are going to rip each other apart.

"But that is part of negotiations, everyone will defend their own interests."

He said he had massive files on his desk covering the contentious issue of fishing rights between the UK and the EU.

The former president of the Brittany region of France, where fishing is a key industry, added: “Let us hope that it is done as quickly as possible even if there are many subjects and that we have substantial points to manage.”

But Downing Street hit back, a spokesperson saying Britain was “not asking for anything special, bespoke or unique”.

They added: “We want a relationship based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals, one centred on free trade and inspired by our shared history and values.”

It comes as Boris Johnson’s chief EU negotiator is due to set out the UK’s demands in the talks at a speech in Brussels.

David Frost, who heads up Taskforce Europe unit within Number 10, will make his first public appearance since Brexit on Monday night.

Alain Tolhurst

Sir Keir Starmer says Labour had the 'right policy' on Brexit despite heavy general election defeat

1 day 1 hour ago
Keir Starmer
Sir Keir argued that Labour had been too "indecisive" in failing to set out how it would campaign in a second EU referendum.

Labour had the "right policy" on Brexit at the general election despite its heavy defeat at the hands of voters, Sir Keir Starmer has said.

The Labour leadership contender defended his party's opposition to "a deal we thought would be very damaging for our country".

But he argued that Labour had been too "indecisive" in failing to set out how it would campaign in a second EU referendum.

Labour went into the election promising to renegotiate Boris Johnson's deal and put it back to the country in another public vote.

The party said it would remain neutral on either that "credible Leave option" or staying in the EU until a special conference of members had decided its official position.

But the party's stance on Brexit has been blamed by some senior figures in the party for helping to hand the keys to Number 10 back to the Conservatives.

Sir Keir told Sky's Sophy Ridge on Sunday: "I thought it was the right policy.

"I thought we should have gone on, by the way, and said which side we would be campaigning on if there was a referendum.

"And I warned our party that if we looked indecisive, we wouldn’t look like we were leading on this issue."

Pressed on whether he still believed Labour's stance on Brexit was the right one, the Shadow Brexit Secretary said: "Yes, of course, because what we were doing, we were fighting against a deal that we thought would be very damaging for our country."

And he argued that Brexit had been just one of several reasons for the party's December defeat - pointing out that it had now lost four successive general elections.

Sir Keir said: "I think we all take responsibility for that devastating election loss… People brought up the leadership of the Labour party, fairly or unfairly; they brought up Brexit in different ways – what was said in the Midlands was different to what was said here in Scotland; they brought up the fact that they thought the manifesto was overloaded and they didn’t believe we could deliver it all and, in a number of places, they brought up anti-Semitism.  

"So, there were a number of reasons and we need to address all of them. But we’ve also, I’m afraid, got to face up to the fact that we’ve lost four elections in a row… Brexit wasn’t the cause of four election losses for the Labour party so an honest assessment of the nature of the task ahead is needed."

Sir Keir's Sky interview comes after he refused to promise Shadow Cabinet jobs to fellow leadership contenders Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey. 

Speaking at a leadership hustings in Glasgow, Sir Keir said he "saluted" both women.

But, asked whether he would offer them jobs, he added: "I don’t think any of us are going to get into jostling for positions on this."

That prompted a pushback from Ms Long-Bailey, the Shadow Business Secretary, who is seen as his closest rival for the top Labour job.

She said: "I feel a bit sad that Keir doesn’t want us in his Shadow Cabinet. 

"I know we don’t agree all the time, and our visions are probably very different, but we meet on areas of common ground, and that’s what would make us a strong shadow cabinet and I would have Keir and Lisa in my Shadow Cabinet."

But Sir Keir insisted he could unite the Labour Party if ends up succeeding Jeremy Corbyn.

He told Sky: "If we can’t unite our party and stop taking lumps out of each other, then we’re not going to win the next general election and so I want to bring our party together."
 

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Government claims EU demands are 'ridiculous' as post-Brexit trade talks loom

1 day 3 hours ago
Boris Johnson
A Conservative source said the PM had won a mandate to 'focus on sovereignty'.

Boris Johnson will refuse to agree to what he sees as "ridiculous" demands from the European Union to align with the bloc's rules on workers' rights and tax in order to strike a trade deal.

Number 10 is reportedly objecting to a string of objectives in Brussels' draft negotiating mandate after a line-by-line review by the UK's chief negotiator David Frost.

Mr Frost, the Prime Minister's Europe adviser, is due to head to Brussels on Monday night to give a talk on the future relationship Britain is seeking with the bloc.

The two sides need to thrash out an agreement by the end of the year, when the UK's closely-aligned transition period with the EU expires.

But, ahead of the trip, senior Conservatives again made it known that they would not agree to calls for a "level playing field" on areas including workers' rights, taxation, state subsidies, environmental protections and health and safety.

They instead argue that the UK should be given a free trade deal on the existing Canada model, mirroring that country’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) which scraps tariffs on most types of goods.

If that cannot be agreed, Britain has said it will accept an arrangement similar to Australia's, which is still in the process of negotiating a free trade deal with the EU and is subject to high tariffs in some areas while it trades on World Trade Organisation terms.

A Conservative source told the Sunday Telegraph: "The UK will take a proactive position in the future trade discussions.

"We have a strong mandate to get Brexit done, get a future trade deal and focus on sovereignty.

"This is in line with EU trade deals they have done before - and we expect the same to apply to us."

One senior Tory meanwhile branded the EU's draft mandate "ridiculous", with the Sun on Sunday reporting that British ministers believe EU standards fall below those of the UK in some key areas.

But the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said earlier this month that whether or not the UK chooses to follow bloc’s rules and standards will be "fundamental for the level of ambition of our future relationship".

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has already warned Britain it "cannot and will not" enjoy the same access to the bloc's markets as before without close alignment.

"With every decision, comes a trade-off," she said last month.

"Without the free movement of people, you cannot have the free movement of capital, goods and services.

"Without a level playing field on environment, labour and state aid, you cannot have the highest quality access to the world's largest single market.

"The more divergence there is, the more distant the partnership will be."

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Angus MacNeil MP: The Scottish Government is dithering on a referendum, all avenues must be explored

5 days 4 hours ago
Flags

All avenues of the Consultative Referendum should be explored now, and the Scottish Government should be decisive and not dither as it did over the Section 30 request, says Angus MacNeil MP. 

Given the UK Government is saying a loud “No” to Scottish democracy, it is quite clear that we are not in a “union” as the word might be understood normally. For instance, a very different union, the trading-union that is the European Union, showed more respect to the current UK, than the UK shows to its member nation, Scotland. 

Inside the EU, the UK could self-determine its relationship with the EU and the world, but in the centralising political project of the UK, it seems Scotland cannot. Therefore, there is a clear problem. 

Scotland’s political representatives now have some choices in the impasse Boris Johnson’s Westminster government thinks it has created. The democratic representatives of Scotland (The SNP) can in effect accept this situation as was done in the 1980s, under different political colours of Labour, and similarly proclaim the current behaviour of the Westminster Government as “unsustainable.” 

The 18 long years between the 1979 referendum, for a mere Assembly, had by 1997 created a huge momentum for a Parliament, due to obtuse deafness of 2 Tory Prime Ministers. The obtuse actions of Boris Johnson can add to this spirit. However, the big difference in this era is that, since the creation of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, Westminster elections are not the only democratic avenue for Scottish determination and expression. 

Things being different today, sitting on our hands and crying, “this is an unsustainable Westminster position” for a decade or more, while perhaps the only choice in the 1980s, and certainly the only one unionist Labour were willing to countenance. That has less appeal to SNP members and MPs, people who are in, and should be in, politics for independence. Today with over 50% support in successive polls, independence has a choice of legal and democratic routes with which to go forward.

We need independence to move our society forward in Scotland, to match our Nordic neighbours, ditto our Celtic cousins in Ireland. They can set their own immigration policies; taxes, environmental laws, energy laws, methods of tackling societal inequality etc. Stuff all normal nations do, and mostly nations do different from each other, but do as deemed best for them, in each democracy. 

So, if we discount doing nothing bar shouting how unfair it all is, all the options open have surely to be considered. Firstly, we should not be in this position of discovering formally, after an election that the Section 30 option to transfer Referendum powers to Scotland is being rejected. This situation was predictable and predicted. 

We should have established the situation long before the December 2019 election and then tailored our manifesto accordingly. Indeed, I asked the question, in a letter of 16th November 2018 to then Prime Minister, Theresa May, on a Sec 30 order for a referendum following an alarming conversation I had with a Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary that Westminster would say “No” and seemed they had no back up plan in that eventuality. That assertion needed bottoming out, as fact and it was in a response 4 weeks later from Theresa May’s Government, on the now iconic of 12th December. That response however did not satisfy the Scottish Government who waited over a year to formally repeat the process and get the predicted predictable answer. In the meantime, no backup plan was put on a manifesto.

All avenues of the Consultative Referendum should be explored now, and the Scottish Government should be decisive and not dither as it did over the Section 30 request. That will be a hard sentence for many of my colleagues to read, but dither it was. Now the Scottish Government is dithering over establishing the legality of a Consultative Referendum and that is another hard fact to swallow. 

If all Referendum approaches are closed off, then we move away from (the Salmond inspired) Referendum approach that hold sway today and allow the Scottish people democratic expression at an election, either by majority of seats or votes. After all Boris Johnson has his mandate for any Brexit on 43% of the vote and 56% of the seats. The SNP in Scotland has 45% of the vote and 82% of the seats, on Westminster’s own rules! 

Incidentally international recognition will follow recognition in Scotland by whatever means this is established. We should remember the words of the great Daniel O Connell “No one can say to a nation, this far and no further. “ 

Some say, “There are no short cuts to independence.” Events of 1989 disprove such vacillating rhetoric but the Scottish period of 1979 to 1997 proves there are some long hauls. Personally, at age 49, waiting 18 years until I am 67 to improve Scotland is not a long haul I am ready for. In politics we are in it to win it, not to “hedge our bets” for decades. Scotland needs to win. 

 

Angus MacNeil is Scottish National Party MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar.

Member of Parliament

Michel Barnier: UK should not 'kid themselves' over the City's access to EU markets after Brexit

5 days 22 hours ago
Panorama View Of Canary Wharf, London
Ministers are pushing to protect the City of London after Brexit.

British ministers should not "kid themselves" about the level of access to EU markets that the City of London will have in any post-Brexit trade deal, Michel Barnier has declared.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator pushed back almost immediately after Chancellor Sajid Javid vowed to press for so-called 'equivalence' between the UK and EU financial sectors on "day one" of the two sides' striking up a new trade relationship.

Brussels uses 'equivalence' tests to weigh up whether banking rules in a country it is trading with are up to the same standard as its own regulations.

British ministers are eager to ensure that the UK's £127bn financial services sector is able to do business as easily as possible across the bloc. 

Writing for City AM, Mr Javid said he would be pushing for the two sides to "work together in pursuit of common interests".

And he said: "As we leave the EU with the same rules, achieving equivalence on day one should not be complicated...

"If the EU, like us, wants a durable relationship, we should also include measures to directly address the long-term needs of industry for a reliable equivalence process. This would provide the certainty on which internationally mobile businesses can depend."

A leaked document seen by the Financial Times meanwhile made clear that the UK government would push for a "permanent equivalence" regime for financial services that will last for "decades to come" in a bid to shore up the City of London.

But Mr Barnier told the European Parliament that the UK could not expect "open-ended" accesss from Brussels now that it has quit the EU.

"Wherever possible we will grant equivalence on particular sectors of the financial industry," he said. "That is what we did with Canada, that’s what we do with the United States and Japan, and it works. So I don’t see why it shouldn’t work with the United Kingdom.

"And I would like to take this opportunity to make it clear to certain people in the United Kingdom ... that they should not kid themselves about this. There will not be general, open-ended, ongoing equivalence in financial services ... We will keep control of these tools and we will retain a free hand to take our decisions."

The rebuke from Mr Barnier comes amid suggestions that the bloc will demand concessions from the UK on access to its fishing waters in exchange for greater freedom for financial services. 

Both the UK and EU made their opening pitches ahead of talks on post-Brexit ties last week, with Mr Johnson pitching the UK as a champion of global free trade against a rising tide of protectionism and arguing that Britain will not need to align with a host of European rules and standards to land a deal.

Responding to that speech on Tuesday, European Commission president Ursual von der Leyen told members of the European Parliament: "The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, whom we respect, said that in leaving the European Union the UK was not leaving Europe. We welcome that resolve. 

"The question that arises, for which we have no reply up until now, is this; it’s a fairly simple, but a rather serious question: the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, the single market and the customs union - does it also wish to leave, or move away, from our economic and social model, from the European regulatory model it’s very familiar with because we got it up with the United Kingdom over a period of 47 years? That is the question on which we are awaiting a reply."

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Get ready for 'inevitable' post-Brexit checks at the border, Michael Gove tells businesses

6 days 3 hours ago
Michael Gove
The Cabinet minister said "almost everybody" would face extra barriers at the border.

Michael Gove has told businesses to get ready for "inevitable" border checks in the wake of Brexit as the Government confirmed plans to bring in import controls from next year.

The Cabinet minister, who is expected to play a key role in planning for the end of the current transition period with the EU, said "almost everybody" would face extra barriers at the border.

The Government confirmed that import controls will be brought in on EU goods at the border once the transition period - which currently sees the UK stay closely aligned to the bloc - expires on 31 December.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Government's Border Delivery Group, Mr Gove confirmed that traders from both the EU and Britain would have to submit customs declarations and be liable to face goods' checks at the UK border.

"The UK will be outside the single market and outside the customs union, so we will have to be ready for the customs procedures and regulatory checks that will inevitably follow," he said.

"As a result of that we will be in a stronger position, not just to make sure that our economy succeeds outside the European Union but that we are in a position to take advantage of new trading relationships with the rest of the world."

And he told businesses: "You have to accept we will need some friction. We will minimise it, but it is an inevitability of our departure."

Mr Gove added: "I don’t underestimate the fact that this is a significant change, but we have time now to make that change."

The move has already sparked concern from some business groups, with the British Retail Consortium urging ministers to set out detailed plans to ensure that vital goods still flow to consumers.

The group's director of food and sustainability Andrew Opie said: "Government will need to move fast if it intends to provide the necessary infrastructure to carry out full border controls on imported goods from January 2021.

"Without the necessary infrastructure up and running from day one, consumers in the UK will see significant disruption, particularly in the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables.

"Staff will need to be hired and trained to carry out these checks on the thousands of lorries that enter the UK every day.

"IT systems must be adapted and tested. Holding facilities for lorries, particularly at Dover and Folkestone, will need to be constructed.

"It is not enough to announce checks will take place, we must see plans now as to how this will be possible in practice, or it will be consumers who suffer on January 1."

The Freight Transport Association's UK policy director Elizabeth de Jong meanwhile said: "Mr Gove put to rest [Chancellor] Sajid Javid's assertion that industry had plenty of time to prepare."

She added: "As representatives of the logistics industry, we are naturally disappointed that the promise of frictionless trade has been replaced with a promise that trade will be as seamless as possible but not until 2025, with a more realistic but costly 'make do and mend' approach to be employed until then.

"Industry will need the support of Government during this period to keep Britain trading effectively."

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

SNP's 'Europe loves Scotland' projection reported to Belgian police, European Commission says

6 days 21 hours ago
Berlaymont building
The light show was projected onto the side of the Berlaymont building in Brussels.

An SNP-funded message which was beamed onto the side of the European Commission building without its knowledge has been reported to the police, it has been revealed.

The Commission's deputy chief spokeperson Dana Spinant told reporters on Monday that the "Europe loves Scotland" message - which was projected onto its Berlaymont HQ on the day Britain left the EU - had been "taken up with" the Belgian authorities.

The message was cited by Nicola Sturgeon as apparent evidence that the Commission wanted Scotland to rejoin the bloc as an independent country.

She tweeted a picture of the stunt on 31 January with the message: "The EU Commission building in Brussels tonight (and if you look carefully you’ll see that they do appear to have left a light on for us!)"

That message was echoed by the SNP's Treasury spokesperson Peter Grant, who said: "What a strange thing to do for a European commission that Labour and the Tories say doesn’t want Scotland back in."

But Ms Spinant said on Monday: "In relation to the message projected on the Berlaymont on 31 of January I can confirm, it seems, that this had nothing to do with the Commission. We were not in the knowledge of that."

And she added: "This is something that is between those stakeholders, those third parties and the Belgian police so we had nothing to do with that action or with the message that was projected. We have just one interlocutor in relation to the future partnership with the UK and that is of course London."

Asked whether a Commission official had reported the illumination to Belgian police, the spokesperson said: "This was part of our ongoing discussions with the Belgian police, which is in charge of many aspects linked to the Berlaymont.

"And I know that it was taken up with then... I can again confirm that it had nothing to do with us and it was simply a matter for the Belgian police."

While Ms Spinant said the Commission had not taken a view on "the content of that message", she said there were "procedures for projecting an image with any message on a building such as the Berlaymont", and confirmed that this had been discussed with the police.

She added: "In relation to projecting such messages on buildings, that was a matter for the Belgian police. It wasn't something which was for us we are not in the business of being requested or granting authorisations for people from outside for projecting messages on our building. This is what the discussion was about."

An SNP spokesperson confirmed to the Scottish Sun last week that they had commissioned firm Double Take productions to project the image on the side of the building.

And a spokesperson for Double Take said: "We were commissioned by our client to project the image on to the side of the Berlaymont on Friday evening. We are an impartial company, who work with a range of clients from across the political spectrum."

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie has already hit out at the projection, saying: “This was very sneaky of the SNP to let people think that the European Commission was sending a message about Scottish independence.

“Perhaps if the SNP spent a little more time on the NHS than gags like this then more people would get the treatment they needed on time.”

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Liz Truss moves to slash tariffs on US goods post-Brexit and protect UK industries

1 week 3 days ago
Liz Truss
Liz Truss says a trade deal with the US will help cut costs for UK consumers

Liz Truss has set out plans to slash tariffs on US goods post-Brexit as well as protecting UK industries from cheap imports from other countries.

The International Trade Secretary has launched a public consultation on developing a new “Most Favoured Nation” system to develop new trading relationships with countries outside the EU.

She said striking free trade agreements creates “the opportunity to increase prosperity in all parts of our country” by removing duties and cutting red tape, supporting businesses and slashing prices for consumers.

From the start of 2021, goods coming into the UK will no longer be subject to the EU’s Common External Tariff, meaning prices will come down.

However, ministers want to protect British producers by imposing tariffs to stop cheap foreign imports flooding the market - a practice known as "dumping" - and putting homegrown businesses at risk.

Ms Truss said: “The UK has left the EU and it is time for us to look forward to our future as an independent, global champion of free trade.  

“It is vitally important that we now move away from complex tariff schedule imposed on us by the European Union.

“High tariffs impinge on businesses and raise costs for consumers. This is our opportunity to set our own tariff strategy that is right for UK consumers and businesses across our country.”

Her department is also starting a review of 43 “EU trade remedy measures” created to protect UK businesses from unfair trading practices, and see which will still be needed post-Brexit.

They include things like anti-dumping tariffs of up to 36.1% on imports of ceramic kitchen and tableware from China, and duties of €62 per bus and lorry tyres bought from the same country.

In a statement to Parliament Ms Truss said: “We aim to secure free trade agreements with countries covering 80% of UK trade within the next three years.

“We will drive a hard bargain and, as with all negotiations, we will be prepared to walk away if that is in the national interest.

“A key priority is to deepen trade and investment relationships with like-minded partners, starting with the USA, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.”

She added that a deal with America would “lower prices and increase choice for UK consumers”, as well as allow the UK to “protect its interests when threatened by unexpected surges in imports of goods or unfair trading practices”.

Alain Tolhurst

Philip Hammond and Ken Clarke 'in line for peerages' despite defying Boris Johnson on Brexit

1 week 4 days ago
Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond
Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond were among 21 Tory rebels who lost the whip last year.

Philip Hammond and Ken Clarke have both been nominated for peerages by Boris Johnson despite the pair being kicked out of the Conservative Party for opposing him on Brexit, it has emerged.

The BBC reports that the two former Chancellors, who had the Tory whip withdrawn last year after backing Commons moves to halt a no-deal Brexit, are in line for a place in the House of Lords.

Former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson - another frequent critic of the Prime Minister - is also on the latest Downing Street honours list.

Meanwhile former Labour MPs Iain Austin and John Woodcock, who both quit the party after repeatedly blasting Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, will reportedly be nominated to sit as non-aligned peers.

The move by Mr Johnson to hand peerages to Mr Hammond and Mr Clarke is a major shock, given their previous criticisms of his leadership.

They were part of a rebel group of 21 Tories who backed a motion paving the way for  legislation which helped delay the UK's exit date from the EU.

Tory grandee Mr Clarke, who served in the Cabinet under  John Major and David Cameron, stepped down as an MP at the election, and has since accused the Prime Minister of dealing in "generalities" on Brexit.

Mr Hammond, Theresa May's Chancellor for her three-year stint in office, considered standing as an independent candidate, but said he could not "embark on a course of action that would represent a direct challenge in a general election to the party I have supported all my adult life".

However, in a letter to his constituents, Mr Hammond said he felt "aggrieved" at his treatment by the Prime Minister.

"The Conservative Party that I have served has always had room for a wide range of opinions and has been tolerant of measured dissent," he added.

"Many parliamentary colleagues have defied the party whip on occasions without any action taken against them."

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

EXPLAINED: What are Britain and the EU going to row about now that Brexit is 'done'?

1 week 6 days ago
Brexit
The two sides have unveiled their opening pitches for talks on the future relationship.

Behind the rhetorical flourishes, Britain and the EU are gearing up for a major tussle over a post-Brexit trade deal. Matt Honeycombe-Foster digs into the detail

WHY ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT BREXIT?

Boris Johnson may have stormed to an election victory on a promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’ - but there’s still plenty of work ahead of him to make the full-blooded Eurosceptic dream a reality.

While Britain formally left the European Union at 11pm on 31 January, the country is now in an 11-month “implementation period”, where most EU rules and standards continue to apply and trading continues as before.

It’s what comes after that transition period runs out that is now occupying minds in Westminster and Brussels - and the Prime Minister’s punchy speech on Monday vowing that Britain will “take off its Clark Kent spectacles” and become a global Superman of free trade set the tone for the tense talks to come. Helpfully, ministers have also provided a chunky statement to Parliament spelling out what the country is after.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier meanwhile unveiled the bloc's own pitch going into the talks - warning the Prime Minister that Britain cannot expect "business as usual" now it has left.

But what exactly are the two sides pitching beyond the spicy rhetoric? Let's take a look.

WILL THE PM REALLY NOT EXTEND THE TRANSITION?

He certainly says he won’t. And if anyone was in any doubt that the PM was serious about his manifesto pledge not to extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020, the statement once again puts it in writing, vowing “complete certainty that at the end of 2020 the process of transition to that relationship will be complete and that the UK will have recovered in full its economic and political independence”.

And, just to make sure nobody thinks Number 10 is messing about, it makes clear that however the talks pan out Britain will be “leaving the single market and the customs union at the end of this year and stakeholders should prepare for that reality”.

WHAT’S ALL THIS TALK ABOUT ‘ALIGNMENT’?

If you’d just recovered from trying to understand the ‘backstop’, get used to a word you’ll be hearing a lot of over the next 11 months: ‘alignment’. It’s a word that goes to the heart of the post-Brexit battle: will the UK choose to closely align with EU rules to gain continued high levels of access to the single market? Or will it strike out alone - potentially hitting businesses in the process as new barriers are erected?

Monday’s speech from the Prime Minister made it pretty clear where the Government sees its priorities. Johnson said the UK does not seek “alignment of any kind” as it pushes to become “an independent actor and catalyst for free trade across the world”. This has already raised alarm bells in Brussels, with the Barnier saying that whether not the UK chooses to follow bloc’s rules and standards will be “fundamental for the level of ambition of our future relationship”.

In other words, the EU is telling Britain: the more you converge with our way of doing things, the more access you’ll get to our consumers. And the EU believes that the sheer size of that single market - with Barnier on Monday pointedly reminding Johnson that it covers some 450 million people - will force Britain down this route as the talks progress.

But while the UK’s pitch says the Government “will work hard to achieve a balanced agreement that is in the interests of both sides”, it says any pact between the two sides “must respect the sovereignty of both parties and the autonomy of our legal orders” - and that includes ruling out alignment. For Brexiteers, the whole prize of leaving the EU was the ability to do things differently - and the UK under Johnson is unlikely to want to give away regulatory autonomy before it even gets the chance to use it.

For good measure, the UK pitch makes clear the areas where it believes the EU should have absolutely no say as talks progress. It vows to “develop separate and independent policies” on immigration, competition and subsidies, tax, the environment, welfare and data protection.

The Government insists it will maintain “high standards as we do so” across all these areas - with Johnson using his speech to promise not to “engage in some cut-throat race to the bottom” and saying the UK is a world-leader on many of the areas deemed off-limits. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has pointed to the UK’s minimum wage as an one example of how the UK outpaces many of its EU counterparts.

WILL EU LAW STILL BIND THE UK?

Not if Number 10 has its way. But get used to hearing plenty about the European Court of Justice. The UK document makes a few direct mentions of the EU-wide legal body, which has long been treated with suspicion by Brexiteers. It argues that the court cannot have “any jurisdiction” over UK laws or “any supranational control in any area” as part of a deal.

The ECJ gets another namecheck in the section on post-Brexit security ties. While the pitch calls for a “pragmatic agreement” on fighting crime across borders, it adds the following warning: “The detail of such an agreement must be consistent with the Government’s position that the CJEU and the EU legal order must not constrain the autonomy of the UK’s legal system in any way.”

That, of course, may not go down well with the EU - particularly given that the political declaration signed up to by both sides before Christmas says the UK is willing to “respect the integrity” of that court with “regard to alignment of rules and the mechanisms for disputes and enforcement”. Expect this one to run.

CANADA? AUSTRALIA? WHAT KIND OF DEAL DO THEY WANT?

Downing Street has been adamant that Britain’s free trade deal with the EU must be modelled on existing tie-ups the bloc has with other countries - with no special stipulations placed on Britain just because of its decades-long membership.

Both sides have said they are aiming for a Canada-style deal, mirroring that country’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) which scraps tariffs on most types of goods while also limiting some food imports into the EU and imposing curbs on the all-important financial services sector.

But ministers have also been talking up a back-up ‘Australia-style’ deal in recent days. This is a slight misnomer, as Australia is still in the process of negotiating a free trade deal with the EU and is subject to high tariffs in some areas while it trades on World Trade Organisation terms. Critics say this is alarmingly close to the ‘no-deal Brexit’ being countenanced by the Government before the divorce agreement was signed before Christmas.

The Government’s pitch does not make explicit reference to either previous deal, but it demands “no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions between the UK and the EU” and says an agreement must include both goods and services.

For its part, the EU’s own draft mandate talks up “zero-tariffs and zero-quotas on all goods” - but Barnier made clear that this “exceptional offer” will be “conditional” on competition between the UK and EU remaining “open and fair”.

“We must now agree on specific and effective guarantees to ensure a level playing field over the long-term,” he said on Monday. “That means mechanisms to uphold the high standards we have on social, environmental, climate, tax and state aid matters today and in the future developments.”

Number 10 says it wants “smooth trade between the UK and the EU”. But, in another potential flashpoint, Brussels has argued that fresh checks, dubbed “customs formalities” by the EU’s chief negotiator on Monday, are an inevitable consequence of Britain’s insistence it is quitting the customs union. “Access to the EU markets will be subject to certification and market authorisation and supervision activities,” Barnier said on Monday.

WHY ARE THEY ARGUING ABOUT BANKS AND FISH?

One of the most emotive issues through the Brexit process has been the fate of Britain’s fishing communities, many of whom feel they’ve had a raw deal under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. Boris Johnson has been adamant that the UK will “take back control” over its “spectacular maritime wealth” after it quits the bloc, with Britain becoming an “independent coastal state” no longer bound by quotas set in Brussels.

But the EU has already linked Britain’s bountiful seas to a potential deal on financial services. The argument essentially goes: give us your fish, and we’ll let your banks do business here largely unimpeded. Given that fishing accounts for less than 0.05% of the UK’s overall economic output while the financial services industry represents a whopping 7.1%, it’s easy to see why ministers could be tempted to sell fishermen and women down the river.

The Government’s opening pitch for the talks certainly leaves some wiggle room on that front. Although it says Britain will become an “independent coastal state at the end of 2020 and any agreement must reflect this reality”, it pitches for “annual negotiations with the EU on access to waters” and says it will “consider a mechanism for cooperation on fisheries matters”.

On financial services, meanwhile, the EU is already talking tough. Britain says it wants “both sides to provide a predictable, transparent, and business- friendly environment for financial services firms”.

But Barnier on Monday reiterated the EU’s longstanding position that British banks and insurers “will no longer have the passporting rights they used to enjoy” as they did under membership - closing the door on a system that allows financial firms to trade through the bloc without extra regulatory barriers. That has already come as a big blow to the banking sector - so can the two sides find enough goodwill to negotiate an alternative? We're about to find out...

 

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Boris Johnson accuses Donald Trump of damaging global economy with China trade war

1 week 6 days ago
Boris Johnson Donald Trump
Boris Johnson was critical of Donald Trump's approach to trade tariffs, saying they are harming the world economy

Boris Johnson has accused Donald Trump of “letting the air out of the tyres of the world economy” by entering into a trade war with China.

The Prime Minister set out his aims for post-Brexit trade in a major speech in London, laying down his red lines for the next phase of negotiations with Brussels as well as the UK’s plans now it is officially out of the EU.

However he refused to say the word "Brexit" at all, saying it was not banned - but now we have left it is "receding behind us in history".

But despite saying he “shares the optimism” of the US President that a deal can now be done between the two nations, he was unsparing in his criticism of Washington’s trade war with Beijing.

Speaking at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, he said Britain “is leaving its chrysalis” and is “re-emerging after decades of hibernation as a campaigner for global free trade”.

But Mr Johnson explained the “beneficial magic” of free trade is fading and “being choked” by politicians failing to lead.

He said: “The mercantilists are everywhere, the protectionists are gaining ground.

“From Brussels to China to Washington, tariffs are being waved around like cudgels - even in debates on foreign policy where frankly they have no place - and there is an ever growing proliferation of non-tariff barriers.

“And the resulting tensions are letting the air out of the tyres of the world economy.”

The PM added that when barriers are going up around the world: “Then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange.

“Some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

“And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.”

He also called on Washington to “cut their punitive tariffs on Scotch whisky” and streamline regulations on selling services like insurance.

The PM added: “And it goes without saying that of course the NHS is not on the table, and no we will not accept any diminution in food hygiene or animal welfare standards.”

He also criticised America for not importing British meat, saying: “It is an incredible fact that we still sell not one hamburger’s worth of beef to the US, not one kebab’s worth of lamb.

“And as I speak the people of the US are still surviving without an ounce of Scottish haggis which they continue to ban.

"In fact I don’t know how they manage Burns Night.”

Mr Johnson was also adamant that chlorinated chicken would not be coming to the UK as part of deal with the US, saying it is not a trade issue but one of “animal welfare”.

“What we will do is use our negotiations to persuade our partners that if you want to do trade freely with us, obviously they will have to accept our animal welfare standards,” he added.

The PM also took a hard-line stance with the EU, saying on Brussels' demands for a “level playing-field” as a precursor to any deal: “There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules.”

And he said any agreement will not trespass “on the autonomy of our respective legal systems”, meaning the European Court of Justice can no longer have any jurisdiction.

Alain Tolhurst

Michel Barnier: EU boats must have access to UK waters in return for trade deal

1 week 6 days ago
Michel Barnier
The EU's chief negotiator insisted Britain could only have a "best-in-class free trade agreement" by aligning with EU standards.

European fishing boats must have access to UK waters in return for a comprehensive free trade agreement with Brussels, Michel Barnier has declared.

The EU's chief negotiator issued the warning as he said the UK cannot expect “business as usual” as it leaves the bloc.

Mr Barnier told Boris Johnson that the UK would “no longer be able to benefit from the rights and economic advantages” of its time as an member state, as he unveiled the union’s draft negotiating stance for the coming talks.

And he again insisted that goods traded between the two entities would face checks as the price of securing a “best-in-class free trade agreement”.

Leaving the EU's Common Fisheries Policy was one of the main pro-Leave arguments during the 2016 referendum.

But senior EU figures have suggested that a deal on financial services may be dependent on their fishermen continue to catch in British waters.

Emphasising that message, Mr Barnier said: "Our free trade agreement must include an agreement on fisheries. This agreement should provide for continued, reciprocal access to markets and to waters with stable quota shares."

The warning came ahead of a bullish speech by the Prime Minister, in which he insisted that the UK will not accept EU rules as the price of a tariff-free trade deal.

Mr Johnson said there was "no need" for the Government to sign up to Brussels' regulations in areas such as environmental standards, workers' rights or competition policy.

Instead, he is pushing for a much looser, Canada-style agreement to be in place by the start of 2021 - with the Tory leader calling for “no alignment” between the UK and the EU.

Speaking in Brussels, Mr Barnier said the EU was willing to offer Britain “a highly ambitious trade deal” that would see “zero-tariffs and zero-quotas on all goods entering our single market of 450 million people”.

But he made clear that that “exceptional offer” would be “conditional” on competition between the UK and EU remaining “open and fair”.

“We have already agreed with Prime Minister Johnson that our future partnership will prevent, and I quote, ‘unfair competitive advantages’,” he said.

“We must now agree on specific and effective guarantees to ensure a level playing field over the long-term.

“That means mechanisms to uphold the high standards we have on social, environmental, climate, tax and state aid matters today and in the future developments.”

The EU’s chief negotiator made clear the bloc would also demand “continued, reciprocal access” to UK waters as part of a pact on fisheries.

And he warned: “It is important… to understand even if we do achieve such a best-in-class free trade agreement it will not be business as usual. We will have two separate markets instead of one single market.

“Rules of origin and customs formalities will apply between the UK and the EU. Access to the EU markets will be subject to certification and market authorisation and supervision activities.

“There will be no harmonisation or mutual recognition of rules.

“This means for example that UK financial services suppliers will no longer have the passporting rights they used to enjoy the union legislation.

“All imports of goods or services supplied in the EU will need to comply with the EU rules - or other standards protecting our public policy objectives.”

'NEW REALITY'

Urging businesses across the UK and the continent to “adapt now to this new reality”, Mr Barnier said Boris Johnson now had to choose whether or not Britain should align with EU rules in a bid secure “higher quality access” to its markets.

“But it will be up to the UK to decide,” he added.

“Will it continue to adhere to Europe’s societal and regulatory model in the future? Or will it seek to diverge?

“The UK’s answer to this question - a key question - will be fundamental for the level of ambition of our future relationship and the UK must know this.”

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen added: “It's now time to get down to work. Time is short.

“We will negotiate in a fair and transparent manner, but we will defend EU interests, and the interests of our citizens, right until the end.”

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Nissan to 'pull out of Europe and concentrate on UK' in event of hard Brexit

2 weeks ago
nissan car factory
A worker on the production line at Nissan's factory in Sunderland.

Nissan will pull out of mainland Europe and instead focus on its UK plant if Brexit leads to tariffs on car exports, it has been reported.

According to the Financial Times, the car giant plans to "double down" on its Sunderland base in a bid to dramatically increase its share of the UK market.

Under the contingency plan, Nissan would close its van-making plant in Barcelona while also shutting its facility in France.

The company believes that if rival carmakers face tariffs on the vehicles they sell into the British market, they would have a massive competitive advantage.

That would potentially allow them to increase their UK market share from 4% at the moment to 20%.

Nissan's Sunderland plant, which produces Qashqai, the Juke and the Leaf models, employs around 6,000 people and is a major employer in the north-east of England.

A spokesman for Nissan Europe said: "We deny such a contingency plan exists.

"We’ve modelled every possible ramification of Brexit and the fact remains that our entire business both in the UK and in Europe is not sustainable in the event of WTO tariffs.

"We continue to urge UK and EU negotiators to work collaboratively towards an orderly balanced Brexit that will continue to encourage mutually beneficial trade."

The report came as Boris Johnson prepares to unveil a tough negotiation strategy ahead of trade talks with the EU.

In a speech on Monday, the Prime Minister will say there is "no need" for the UK to sign up to Brussels regulations in exchange for a tariff-free agreement.

Kevin Schofield

Boris Johnson rules out accepting EU rules in exchange for post-Brexit trade deal

2 weeks ago
Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson has ruled out signing up to EU rules.

Boris Johnson will today set himself on a fresh collision course with Brussels by insisting the UK will not accept EU rules as the price of a tariff-free trade deal.

The Prime Minister will say there is "no need" for the Government to sign up to EU regulations in areas such as environmental standards, workers' rights or competition policy.

Instead, he will say that he wants the UK to strike a much looser, Canada-style agreement to be in place by the start of 2021.

Mr Johnson will set out his demands in a speech outlining what the UK hopes to achieve from trade negotiations which are set to kick off within weeks.

Meanwhile, the EU will also set out its own negotiating objectives, which are expected to call on Britain to align its rules and regulations with those of Brussels in exchange for tariff-free trade with the bloc.

But the PM will say: "There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules. 

 "The UK will maintain the highest standards in these areas – better, in many respects, than those of the EU – without the compulsion of a treaty and it is vital to stress this now.

"We have often been told that we must choose between full access to the EU market, along with accepting its rules and courts on the Norway model, or an ambitious free trade agreement, which opens up markets and avoids the full panoply of EU regulation, on the example of Canada.

"We have made our choice: we want a free trade agreement, similar to Canada’s but in the very unlikely event that we do not succeed, then our trade will have to be based on our existing Withdrawal Agreement with the EU."

Canada struck a tariff-free trade agreement for 98% of the goods it sells to the EU, with an independent arbitration body in place to ensure that they meet Brussels standards.

However, the European Commission has insisted that sort of deal is not on offer in its talks with the UK.

Mr Johnson will add: "The choice is emphatically not ‘deal or no-deal’. The question is whether we agree a trading relationship with the EU comparable to Canada’s – or more like Australia’s.

 "In either case, I have no doubt that Britain will prosper. And of course our new relationship with our closest neighbours will range far beyond trade.
 
"We will seek a pragmatic agreement on security, protecting our citizens without trespassing on the autonomy of our respective legal systems."

In a sign of how difficult the trade talks will be, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called on Mr Johnson to "tone down the nationalistic rhetoric".

He said: "I've learned a lot from the past two and a half years dealing with Brexit and dealing with two different British prime ministers," the Taoiseach said.

"And one thing I'd say to everyone is let's not repeat some of the errors that were made in the past two-and-a-half years. 

"Let's not set such rigid red lines that it makes it hard to come to an agreement and let's tone down the kind of nationalistic rhetoric."

And Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab hit out at Michel Barnier for insisting that there would need to be customs checks on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Kevin Schofield

Leo Varadkar tells Boris Johnson to 'tone down nationalistic rhetoric' as PM vows 'no alignment' with EU

2 weeks 1 day ago
Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar
Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar has urged Boris Johnson to "tone down the nationalistic rhetoric" as the Prime Minister prepares to make a speech calling for "no alignment" with the European Union after Brexit.

The Irish premier warned his UK counterpart against setting "rigid red lines" as the two sides get ready to kick off talks on a future trading relationship now that Britain has left the EU.

And he took aim at a "petty" leaked order for British diplomats to "sit separately" from their EU counterparts at international summits.

Mr Johnson is expected to flesh out his plans for a post-Brexit relationship with Brussels in a speech on Monday.

Amid reports of anger in Number 10 at what the Government sees as a shifting stance from European capitals, the Prime Minister will make clear that he is prepared to accept customs checks at Britain's borders if he cannot secure his preferred agreement with the EU.

Addressing business leaders and diplomats in London, Mr Johnson will reportedly call for the UK to be treated as an "equal" in the talks and demand "no alignment, no jurisdiction of the European courts, and no concessions".

But Mr Varadkar told the BBC that the Prime Minister's words risked making it harder to strike an agreement.

"I've learned a lot from the past two and a half years dealing with Brexit and dealing with two different British prime ministers," the Taoiseach said.

"And one thing I'd say to everyone is let's not repeat some of the errors that were made in the past two-and-a-half years. 

"Let's not set such rigid red lines that it makes it hard to come to an agreement and let's tone down the kind of nationalistic rhetoric."

'PETTY'

EU leaders have already indicated that tariff-free access to its market will require the UK to sign up to key rules and standards. 

Brussels also wants the UK to allow the European Court of Justice to play a part in settling trade disputes between the two sides - a move that will infuriate Conservative Brexiteers.

Mr Varadkar said: "As is always the case when it comes to negotiations, setting out so boldly such firm red lines actually makes coming to an agreement more difficult, because the other party you're negotiating with doesn't feel they've got a fair deal unless those red lines get turned pink or bent in some way."

Urging Mr Johnson to "be cautious about the rhetoric", Mr Varadkar said: "We all want the UK and the European Union to have a close relationship, a political relationship, security relationship, trading relationship... So let's start off on a better footing than maybe was the case after the referendum."

The Irish premier also took aim at Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab over a leaked memo to diplomats urging them to physically distance themselves from their European equivalents at key summits.

In a telegram sent to UK overseas missions - seen by The Sunday Times - the Cabinet minister told diplomats to to "sit separately" and  "adopt a stance as a confident independent country" instead.

But Mr Varadkar likened the move to "primary school" behaviour.

He said: "I think it just comes as being a little bit petty. 

"It's kind of when you're in primary school or in secondary school that you get worried about who you sit beside in class. 

"Most international forums that I've attended - whether it's UN or other international bodies - you tend to be seated either in alphabetical order or according to protocol. 

"So I don't really know what that's about. But it seems a bit silly. Surely everyone should be trying to work with everyone."

The jibe came just minutes after Mr Raab urged the Taoiseach to keep out of British politics.

Apearing on Sky's Sophy Ridge, the Foreign Secretary said: "I think Leo Varadkar is in the midst of, shall I say, very competitive election in Ireland and I’m not going to interfere in Irish politics and I’d probably suggest he wants to refrain from doing the same."

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Dominic Raab slaps down Michel Barnier as he insists there will not be customs checks in the Irish sea

2 weeks 1 day ago
Dominic Raab
The Foreign Secretary urged the EU to "stay committed" to the terms of the deal thrashed out by the two sides.

Dominic Raab has rejected a claim from the EU's Michel Barnier that the Brexit agreement makes customs checks in the Irish Sea "indispensable".

The Foreign Secretary said it was "wrong" for Brussels' Brexit chief negotiator to claim that goods entering Northern Ireland and Great Britain will be subject to extra paperwork once Britain leaves the post-Brexit transition period.

And he urged the EU to "stay committed" to the deal thrashed out by the two sides.

Under the terms of the withdrawal agreement signed off late last year, Northern Ireland will continue to follow EU rules on agricultural and manufactured goods while the rest of the UK will not.

Meanwhile, the whole of the UK will leave the EU's customs union but Northern Ireland will continue to enforce the EU's customs code on goods entering it from Great Britain.

But Boris Johnson has insisted that trade between Britain and the province will still remain "unfettered" and that no customs checks will be necessary.

Casting doubt on that claim in a speech at Queen's University in Belfast this week, Mr Barnier said: "In agreeing to the protocol, the UK has agreed to a system of reinforced checks and controls for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

"I understand the fears of negative economic fallout expressed by some about these checks.

"But Brexit unfortunately has consequences that we must manage."

And he said the UK's decision's to quit the customs union and single market "makes checks indispensable".

But that claim was rejected outright by the Foreign Secretary on Sunday.

Asked by Sky's Sophy Ridge whether checks would take place, Mr Raab said: "No, it's directly in conflict, not just with the Withdrawal Agreement but the undertakings in the political declaration [setting out the two sides' future relationship]."

And Mr Raab said of Mr Barnier: "He's wrong if the EU lives up to its commitment on its side, both in the withdrawal agreement but also the political declaration."

He added:  "We've got the deal. You can examine the terms. It's not my word or anyone else's word and the commitment is to avoid all of those things with a best-in-class free trade agreement.

"And I'm sure we're committed to it on our side and I'm sure the EU will want to stay committed to the undertakings that they've made. That's what we expect."

The comments came amid reports that the Prime Minister will use a speech in London on Monday to say he wants "no alignment" between Britain and the European Union in a post-Brexit trade deal.

Such a move is likely to meet resistance from the EU, which has argued that adherence to key rules and standards will be required for a deal that includes a high level of access to its market.

But, addressing business leaders and diplomats in London, Mr Johnson will call for the UK to be treated as an "equal" in the talks and demand "no alignment, no jurisdiction of the European courts, and no concessions" with Brussels.

Echoing that message, Mr Raab said: "We are taking back control of our laws, so we're not going to have high alignment with the EU, legislative alignment with their rules. 

"But we'll want to cooperate and we expect the EU to follow through on their commitment to a Canada-style free trade agreement. And that's what we're pursuing."

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

President Macron talks up ‘unrivalled ties’ between France and the UK

2 weeks 2 days ago
President Macron
President Macron

The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, has praised the "strength of our unrivalled ties" he defended his "tough" approach to Brexit negotiations.

Writing in The Times this morning, he said: “Dear British friends, you are leaving the European Union but you are not leaving Europe.

“Nor are you becoming detached from France or the friendship of its people. The Channel has never managed to separate our destinies; Brexit will not do so, either.”

Describing Britain’s departure from the EU as a "shock", he said: “I am thinking of the hundreds of thousands of French citizens in the UK and British citizens in France who are wondering about their rights and their future: I assure them that we will protect them.

“In this respect, I know the feeling – however you voted in 2016 – that France was ‘tough’ from the start of the Brexit negotiation. I wanted to defend the existential principles of the way the European Union functions: compliance with our rules within the single market, European unity, and stability in Ireland. 

“These are not bureaucratic inflexibilities but the very foundations of the European edifice.”

Elsewhere, EU President, Ursula von der Leyen warned: “Strength does not lie in splendid isolation, but in our unique Union.”

EUROPEAN COMMISSION: BILLION BILLED

As speeches were made throughout the UK and Brussels to mark the historic day, Britain was told to pay an extra £1.09 billion to the European Commission. 

It comes as part of an annual recalculation of member states’ contributions to the EU budget. The £1.09 billion figure was reached after taking into account an increase in Gross National Income and VAT contributions.

Britain’s contributions in 2019 totalled £9 billion so if the figure is similar for 2020, the potentially penultimate payment could reach £10 billion. 

Murray Jones
Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Boris Johnson says UK has 'taken back self-government' as Britain leaves the EU after 47 years

2 weeks 2 days ago
Boris Johnson
The Prime Minister said his job was now to 'bring this country together now and take us forward'.

Boris Johnson said Britain had "taken back the tools of self-government" as Britain formally left the European Union after years of political drama.

The Prime Minister vowed to use the country's "recaptured sovereignty" to build "a moment of real national renewal and change" at the moment the UK's 47-year membership of the bloc came to an end.

From 11pm on 31 January, Britain enters an 11-month transition period with the EU, in which it will remain broadly aligned to the bloc's rules and trading arrangements until the end of the year.

But Friday evening - marked by a light display at Number 10 and a televised address from the Prime Minister - still signals the country's legal divorce from Brussels after decades of membership, and triggers the quest to strike a new deal with the EU in the months ahead.

In a speech clearly aimed at uniting the country's Brexit factions, Mr Johnson acknowledged that the UK's departure from the bloc would prompt mixed feelings.

"Tonight we are leaving the European Union," he said.

"For many people this is an astonishing moment of hope, a moment they thought would never come. And there are many of course who feel a sense of anxiety and loss.

"And then of course there is a third group – perhaps the biggest – who had started to worry that the whole political wrangle would never come to an end.

"I understand all those feelings, and our job as the government – my job – is to bring this country together now and take us forward."

Mr Johnson - the third person to occupy the job of Prime Minister since the 2016 EU vote - said Brexit marked "not an end but a beginning", as he added: "This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act in our great national drama.

"And yes it is partly about using these new powers – this recaptured sovereignty – to deliver the changes people voted for.

"Whether that is by controlling immigration or creating freeports or liberating our fishing industry or doing free trade deals, or simply making our laws and rules for the benefit of the people of this country.

"And of course I think that is the right and healthy and democratic thing to do. Because for all its strengths and for all its admirable qualities, the EU has evolved over 50 years in a direction that no longer suits this country."

And the Prime Minister said Brexit was "far bigger" than a "legal extrication" from the bloc, as he vowed to try and address some of the reasons voted had opted to quit the bloc in "a moment of real national renewal and change".

He added: "We want this to be the beginning of a new era of friendly cooperation between the EU and an energetic Britain.

"A Britain that is simultaneously a great European power, and truly global in our range and ambitions.

"And when I look at this country’s incredible assets: Our scientists, our engineers, our world-leading universities, our armed forces, when I look at the potential of this country waiting to be unleashed: I know that we can turn this opportunity into a stunning success."

Rounding off his address, the Prime Minister said: "We have obeyed the people. We have taken back the tools of self-government.

"Now is the time to use those tools to unleash the full potential of this brilliant country and to make better the lives of everyone in every corner of our United Kingdom."

CORBYN: ONLY THE BEGINNING

The comments come after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Friday night's EU departure marked "only the beginning" of Britain's quest to strike out on its own.

"Trade negotiations with Europe aren’t scheduled to start until March," the outgoing opposition boss said in his own video message.

"We will hold the government to account every step of the way to protect jobs and living standards, to guarantee the rights of EU nationals here in the UK, and of UK nationals in Europe and to defend protections for workers and our environment.

"And we will resist a toxic Trump deal that puts our NHS, food safety and jobs at risk.

"The choice of which path we take for a post-Brexit Britain now lies before us."

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Tony Blair says UK should 'make the best of' Brexit as he warns against push to rejoin EU

2 weeks 2 days ago
Tony Blair
Tony Blair said rejoining the EU is "not something which should occupy us today"

Tony Blair has called on the UK to “make the best” of Brexit as he conceded the time is not right to push to rejoin the European Union.

The former Prime Minister called on fellow Remainers to avoid "unrequited longing" for the EU - as he took a fresh swipe at Jeremy Corbyn's stance on Brexit.

Mr Blair said: “Brexit is happening, and our attitude now should be to strive to make the best of it; to approach it with determined optimism, not looking over our shoulders in unrequited longing for what was. 

“If we do in the future want to re-join, it should be from a position of strength not supplication; but it’s not something which should occupy us today.”

The ex-Labour leader, who openly supported remaining in the EU, was also heavily critical of the current leadership’s response to Brexit.

He wrote: “I opposed Brexit with every fibre of my political being. I still deeply regret it, politically and emotionally.

“Even now, I grind my teeth at the mind-boggling ineptitude of the Labour Party in helping facilitate it, first by failing to provide coherent opposition to it, and then by collapsing into a Brexit General Election, only to complain about it dominating the debate.”

This is not the first time Mr Blair has been critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s command in the wake of the general election - he previously accused him of turning Labour into a "glorified protest group with cult trimmings".

In an  article posted on the website for his non-profit - the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change - Mr Blair urged Britain to find its “niche” in the world after leaving the EU.

And he cautioned against relying too heavily on relations with the US post-Brexit, adding: “We should of course keep our American relationship close for multiple reasons of economy, security and shared values.

“But we shouldn't see ourselves as forced by departure from Europe to try to compensate by reliance on the USA.

“On the contrary, we need to show what we can bring to their table, in our own right, in economic partnership, trade, diplomacy, the fight against extremism and helping fashion Western alliances with the new emerging Asian and African powers.”

Eleanor Langford

Steve Baker: “I’m very pleased we’ve won. But it should have been sorted out years ago”

2 weeks 2 days ago
Steve Baker has been MP for Wycombe since 2010
Steve Baker has been MP for Wycombe since 2010

With the UK on the way out of the European Union, you might expect Steve Baker to be feeling triumphant. Instead, the Brexiteer feels a degree of “melancholy” at the events of the past three years. Sebastian Whale talks to colleagues past and present about the Wycombe MP; the reluctant ‘Brexit hardman’ who played a crucial role in marshalling Eurosceptics in parliament. Photography by Baldo Sciacca

Steve Baker skydives, he does not base jump. This is an important distinction. Base jumping involves parachuting from a fixed structure such as a building or a cliff. It is considered one of the most precarious recreational activities in the world. “It’s too bloody dangerous, the margins for error are too small, you can’t use your reserve parachute,” says Baker. His friend, Jake Simkins, died in an accident on the Greek island of Zante more than seven years ago.  

“Skydiving is relatively safe, so long as you’re deliberate about what you do, put the right equipment on in the right way, pre-plan what you’re doing and do the right thing at the right time. Even if something goes wrong, you’ve got a very, very high chance of surviving.”

Something did go wrong for Baker back in 2018. He was on a skydive in the Algarve when the left steering toggle on his parachute jammed, leading to a fast-spiral dive through 2,000 feet. He tried twice to release it, before deploying the reserve chute. He landed next to the clubhouse of a nearby golf course. “It was great,” he says.

The truth is Baker was prepared for such a scenario. “I just did the drills,” he says, calmly. “I have found that I’m fine in these moments.”

To the untrained observer, Baker is something of a political risk-taker. But the former Royal Air Force engineer is more methodical than that. For years, he has helped to marshal a group of Tory MPs in the House of Commons. He has earned a reputation as a fixer; a convenor of Eurosceptic resistance.

With the UK set to leave the European Union, fulfilling years of campaigning, graft and turmoil, you would expect Baker to be somewhat jubilant. Instead, the Brexiteer is feeling “melancholy”. Quoting the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo, he says: “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

He explains: “The reality is, the sheer price, the cost throughout this whole thing – in national division, in anxiety, in uncertainty for companies – it’s just so high. Yes, I’m very pleased we’ve won. It is necessary and right that we leave the European Union, but it should have been sorted out years ago.”

Baker’s solemn mood reflects that he feels for the past 18-months or so, he has transitioned from political skydiving to something more high risk. For a meticulous planner, the cost has been high.

“I really knew we were into political base jumping and we have survived it, thank God. And I don’t want to do it again. Ever.”

*****

Steven John Baker was born on 6 June 1971 in St Austell in Cornwall. His father, Mike Baker, is a retired carpenter, while his mum worked as an accounting clerk. Heralding from Cornwall, the Bakers voted liberal.

“Some of the most important things I’ve ever learned have been from my mother. Having the courage to try and do a thing you don’t know how to do and work out how to get through it, that’s one of the best gifts my dad ever gave me,” Baker says.

Baker attended Poltair school in St Austell after earning a scholarship to attend Tawstock Court for his final year of primary school, aged 13. Dressed in a pink uniform and a pink hat, with “goofy teeth”, Baker recalls trying to understand all the unwritten rules at the public school. “When I think of myself as that geeky working-class kid, it’s still very, very difficult to come to terms with who I actually am now who is someone who is very widely known and has wielded a dread-power to split the Conservative party,” he says.

Baker, a staunch Christian, was baptised in the sea when he was a teenager. His faith is central to his character, though he believes in secular politics. “It is absolutely fundamental to who I am that I am a Christian. I don’t think of myself as a religious person, I just am a Christian,” he says. When asked if there is space for religion and politics to co-exist, Baker replies: “What happens I’m afraid with my Christian brothers and sisters, as so often in politics, is they allow themselves to be shown the landmine and then they jump on the landmine with both feet.” His political mantra is: “Do not give into evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it.”

Baker, who dabbles in catamaran racing and motorbiking, turned towards adventure sports in part because he couldn’t catch a ball. “If I do something that’s deliberate and pre-planned and careful, I do rather enjoy doing difficult stuff and getting away with it,” he says.

After taking A-Levels at St Austell Sixth Form College, Baker studied aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton. He joined the Royal Air Force as an engineer officer, with his service taking him across the globe from Alaska to Hong Kong. His wife, Beth, served as a senior officer in the Royal Air Force medical branch until 2010. On the wall of Baker’s office is a picture of Beth at the head of a stretcher moving a wounded soldier onto a helicopter.

Beth did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I’ll never forget wrapping my wife’s assault rifle in hessian at RAF Cottesmore when she was in the air force and I wasn’t,” Baker says. Baker, who voted for military intervention in Libya but against in Syria in 2013, says: “I’m just not voting for wars we don’t have to have. I’m just not doing it, come what may.”

Baker received an MSc in Computer Science from St Cross College, Oxford. After 10 years in the RAF, he enjoyed a successful career as a software engineer and consultant, which saw him employed as chief architect of global financing and asset service platforms at Lehman Brothers from 2006-2008, before the bank’s collapse.

It was developments in the European Union that inspired Baker, who voted Liberal at his first election, to take up politics. “I only joined the Conservative party because I was furious about the Lisbon treaty,” he says. His revulsion at member states not receiving a meaningful say on the proposed integration, coupled with a disdain for economists and politicians, inspired him to get involved.

Baker, who is a self-taught economist, trawled through books on political philosophy. “I’m not very good at reading history – I get bored with stories – but I like ideas,” he says. “I read myself silly and worked out what kind of politics I believed in and the answer was old English classical liberalism.”

Though he hesitates to call himself a libertarian, Baker is about as close as you can come to one without being labelled as such. Daniel Hannan, the Conservative Eurosceptic and now former MEP, explains: “He is one of the few people who I have seen physically flinch at the thought of the Government spending more money. Really, his issue was not initially the EU except insofar as he was generally sceptical of big government and saw the EU as part of that. The Euroscepticism developed out of that.”

Ahead of the 2010 election, he was selected as the Conservative candidate in Wycombe, replacing the outgoing Paul Goodman. Though he won admirers during his early years as an MP, Baker found life frustrating. “The whole system is set up to stop you achieving anything,” he told The House in 2012. A propensity to deviate from the party line meant that promotion to the frontbench was proving unlikely. During his first parliament, he served on the Transport and Treasury select committees and was elected to the executive of the 1922 group of Tory MPs.

In October 2011, Baker was among the 81 Tory MPs to vote in favour of a referendum on membership of the European Union. Though the non-binding motion was defeated, the scale of the pushback – the largest post-war rebellion of its kind at this stage – was significant. More than a year later, he was among the Tory MPs to rebel against David Cameron over the EU budget, and in March 2013, Baker supported an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, lodged by John Baron, which criticised the lack of legislation to hold an in/out vote. Cameron, who had committed to a public vote during his Bloomberg speech months earlier, moved to quell the rebellion by pledging to produce a draft referendum bill.

Baker was catching the eye of fellow Eurosceptics. Hannan had been lining up a fixer for Tory MPs for some time. His previous nominees, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless had both defected to Ukip, while David Heathcoat-Amory, a former ERG chairman, had lost his seat. The so-called Men of Maastricht – the group of Conservative backbenchers who rebelled against John Major in the 1990s – were not viewed as capable of uniting MPs together. “That was when I alighted on Steve,” Hannan explains.

When Hannan approached Baker about the informal role, he said there was no one else to do it. “He didn’t need too much convincing, because he believed in it. He was one of a handful of people who never doubted that Leave was going to win. He did the job beautifully,” Hannan says.

Carswell says: “We identified him early on in the 2010 parliament as one of those rare eurosceptics who couldn’t be bought off, whereas many could be down the years with the promise of promotion or a slightly bigger office. That made us see him as something special.”

Baker, who founded Conservatives for Britain in 2015, proved a key figure on the parliamentary frontline. In February 2016, he accused Cameron of attempting to “polish poo” as the prime minister presented his renegotiated relationship with Brussels. “It was the most effective thing I’ve ever done in politics... I didn’t like doing it because it was coarse, it was vulgar. Unfortunately, it was necessary,” Baker told me in 2018.

When a putsch was launched by board members of Vote Leave and several MPs against Dominic Cummings, then strategist and campaign director of the organisation, Baker was central in neutralising the move. Carswell recalls: “He was absolutely key in helping us quash the attempted coup attempt which I understand is the subject of a film.”

In the wake of the referendum result – which Baker is still yet to celebrate – he reformed the European Research Group. He created a steering committee and appointed two officers that voted Remain in the referendum, John Penrose and Charlie Elphicke.

Under his stewardship, the ERG grew in numbers. It has two tiers of affiliation – subscribers and members – and at its height was thought to have around 60-80 MPs in its roster. The group gained notoriety as Brexit’s praetorian guard, while others viewed the ERG to be nothing more than a party within a party. “It’s a caucus with an ideology,” a Cabinet minister told me during the last parliament. “They are, some of them, prepared to lose every other achievement of Conservative government, including putting our economy back on track, in order to get where they’ve always wanted to be.”

Following the disastrous 2017 election for the Conservatives, Baker was made a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union. His successors as ERG chair – Suella Fernandes and Jacob Rees-Mogg – would also later find themselves in government. In the role, Baker took through the EU Withdrawal Act; an achievement he still holds with great pride. But in July 2018, Baker, along with David Davis and Boris Johnson, resigned from the Government.

Baker was about to enter political base jumping. “Unfortunately, once we got into needing to chuck Chequers, I’m afraid it just became war and all anybody remembers is the ERG being a bunch of warriors,” he says.

*****

Sitting among a litany of skydiving photos and political memorabilia on Steve Baker’s parliamentary walls is an image of a half-naked character from the movie 300, with Baker’s face superimposed on top. It is perhaps an ironic homage to one of many nicknames the so-called ‘Brexit hardman’ has earned in recent years.

Baker was one of 28 Conservative MPs to vote against Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement at three times of asking. The Spartans, as they became known, have been derided for their obstinance. Many feared their apparent ideological intransigence could see Brexit scuppered altogether. After May’s third defeat, with a resurgent Commons seeking to take control of the order paper, leaving the European Union came into doubt.

Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns says: “All of us so-called Spartans who voted against it, we could see what was happening to our party, to our country, to the trust in democracy, and we had to fight like a dog, tooth and nail to make sure we maintained it. Certainly, Steve was at the forefront of it.”

This took its toll on Baker, who was captured in tears on a BBC documentary. But he held out, believing that May’s deal was tantamount to Brexit in name only, with its commitment on a customs union.

Daniel Hannan too was being worn down by what he was seeing. “By the beginning of 2019, I now realise I was actually becoming affected by the external political mood... I was becoming withdrawn, I was snapping at people, I was drinking too much. It was only really when Boris took over that the sun came out again.”

Months earlier, Baker was among those to hand in their letter to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 committee, declaring his lack of confidence in May’s leadership. The subsequent vote, which ostensibly saw May’s position firmed up, showed that the Brexiteers acted prematurely. There were also splits among Eurosceptics over the third meaningful vote, with Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Jacob Rees-Mogg among those to vote in favour.

Baker, along with fellow Brexiteer Mark Francois, who acted as ERG chief whip, had been marshalling colleagues on the numerous votes that took place in the first six months of 2019. “It’s his organisational skills, his meticulous attention to detail. He was there, he was on the ball and he has got that sharp mind for that,” says Jenkyns.

On one occasion, Baker recalls sending out a WhatsApp broadcast message and managing to corral more than 70 MPs through the rebel lobby after the division bell started ringing. “That’s a hell of a power for somebody to wield from the backbenches and I rather regret ever having had to wield it,” he says.

Members of the ERG largely rallied behind Boris Johnson’s bid to become the next Tory leader. Baker was tipped for a big job. He ventured into Downing St as Johnson selected his new team but was made to wait more than an hour. He was on his way out of the building before being called back by aides. “I don’t know now whether that was a game or a real thing, but that’s by the by,” he comments.

Johnson offered Baker the role of DExEU minister – a position he had resigned from more than a year earlier. He was plainly deeply disappointed at the offer, which came soon after Michael Gove was given a beefed-up Brexit role in the Cabinet Office. “We sat in the Cabinet room and we had a very interesting conversation that I don’t want to discuss until after he’s stopped being Prime Minister,” he says. With some poignancy, he adds: “I’ve walked a long way with Boris Johnson.” He highlights his efforts in neutralising an attack by several ambassadors when he was Foreign Secretary, among other interventions in Johnson’s favour.

I ask if Baker feels betrayed by the PM. “No, I would never say that. Absolutely not,” he says. How about let down? “I would say that forming a government is an extremely difficult thing to do in any circumstances... What was it that Churchill said to parliament, ‘People will make allowances’? I will absolutely make all allowances. I’ve got no problem with him whatsoever.”

With Johnson rumoured to be lining up an overhaul of his top team in February, Baker does not expect to get the call-up. “Quite honestly, I’m not expecting to be put into the Government,” he says. But would he like to be? “Yes, is the short answer, because when I go back through my copious notes of the last five years, I find that it turns out, against all my expectations, I was happiest when a minister,” he says. As for a role, he cites working in peace, monetary reform – a key bugbear for Baker – and trade. “I’m very interested in trade policy and I’d love to do that, but Liz [Truss] is doing a fantastic job,” he says.

Mark Francois comments: “Ministerial appointments are a matter for the prime minister and not me. But personally, I think Steve has more than earned a place at the Cabinet table.” Jenkyns adds: “I’m not somebody who makes these decisions, but he is a guy who’s very committed to the cause and was a very good minister. I’m sure he would be a very good minister again.”

Having rejected a ministerial role, Baker was once more appointed chair of the ERG. Along with Sir Bill Cash, Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Francois, he held a series of meetings in No 10 over the Withdrawal Agreement. “We were negotiating safeguards to go into domestic legislation and to be in policy later,” Baker says. Francois adds: “While they were negotiating with the EU, we were negotiating with them.” The quad was then able to recommend to the wider ERG group that they supported Johnson’s deal. Even ardent Brexiteers such as John Redwood followed suit.

Baker is someone who tried to reach across the political divide on Brexit. He was among those to put forward the Malthouse Compromise, a much-maligned proposal that was the brainchild of Baker, Kit Malthouse, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nicky Morgan, Damian Green and others. “Of course, it was derided but it has actually succeeded. We’ve done it. The deal, if somebody gets the paperwork out, they’ll see it’s not far off the Malthouse Compromise.”

If I showed Baker the Brexit proposals on 24 June 2016, what would he think? “If you showed me the political declaration on the future relationship I’d say, ‘Yep, that’s ideal’,” he replies. The Withdrawal Agreement has proved more troublesome, but the ERG have compromised, he says. It “presents us with a tolerable path to a fantastic future” he adds.

Baker and other Eurosceptics have received their fair share of abuse. Their stances have left some residual ill-feeling among colleagues too. “Still now I go in the tea room and usually you go to start a new table if the tables are full, and people avoid sitting next to me,” says Jenkyns. However, many of the new intake of Conservative MPs have greeted the Brexiteers with reverence. “It’s very, very humbling when a real Member of Parliament, a genuine actual Member of Parliament knows who I am, shakes hands and says, ‘Thank you for what you did’,” Baker says.

So, what next for the ERG? The group continues to meet and has had several new subscribers join its ranks. As the Government undertakes negotiations on new trade deals, Baker wants the organisation to take a back seat. “I do not want groups of backbench MPs, of any persuasion, intervening in the Government’s negotiations – it’s not helpful and shouldn’t happen,” he says. “I would like to go back to the status quo anti-bellum, where the thing is there, it does what it is supposed to do which is to collectively employ a researcher to assist colleagues in their parliamentary duties, and nobody is talking about the ERG.”

But what if the UK government asks for an extension to the transition period. Could that awake the sleeping beast? “I’m not committing to that at all, no,” says Baker. “Boris Johnson is a true believer in doing this right and I believe that Boris Johnson genuinely wishes to deliver what’s in the manifesto, and that’s why I backed him.”

In previous conversations with me, Baker has referred to Brexit as a “struggle”. It seems this particular struggle has taken its toll on Baker, who is more circumspect than triumphalist. But with Brexit night approaching, he will succumb to enjoying the moment. “I will allow myself a smile and a glass of champagne on the moment we cease to be a member state, yes. I think I’m under a duty to enjoy myself that evening.”

Those who know him say Baker’s interests lie well beyond the European issue, and he wishes it did not fall upon his generation to ensure Brexit took place. “I suppose a combination of serendipity and our constitution functioning has meant that the public, in the end, have got what they wanted. But it’s one of those things I wouldn’t have done this way,” he says.

To those who know him, Baker is unlike his persona in the media. “He is definitely a man of detail. I’ve noticed that he’s a Gemini, I’m a Gemini – I’m into my astrology – Boris is a Gemini, Trump is a Gemini, Jacob is a Gemini, I think it’s an outspoken trait actually. I’ve gelled with him and I think we’ve got mutual respect for each other,” says Jenkyns. Francois says: “He is fun to work with. He’s also got quite a dry sense of humour, so meetings are good fun. He’s efficient and if he says something is done, you know it’s done. I like people like that.”

This year, Baker plans to do many more skydives. When he hurls himself out of a plane, he “intensely experiences life”. “It’s a love of life. When you’re on a drop zone and you’re with other skydivers, people are very relaxed, I’m a much more relaxed person on a drop zone.”

But as the dust settles, and politics returns to normal, won’t he miss dabbling in something more politically dangerous? “No,” he says. “It’s been too awful. I just want to get on with normal politics that is relatively uncontroversial and serves all my constituents.”

Sebastian Whale
Submitted by itops on Tue, 11/14/2017 - 11:47