SYLVIE Bermann, who recently left her role as France’s ambassador to London, described her life in the UK as “Brexit in the morning, Brexit for lunch and Brexit for dinner”. She was not the only one.
2017 was undoubtedly the Year of Brexit; the subject dominated the workings of the UK Government and the media. The twists and turns of Britain’s slow-motion departure from the EU overshadowed everything political; even the little matter of a general election.
January was the first high watermark in the life of Brexit.
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Theresa May gave her set-piece Lancaster House speech in which she laid out her main “hard Brexit” position ie that the UK would no longer be a member of the European single market and customs union from March 2019 and that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal”.
She also said MPs would get a vote on the final deal but it was made clear by No 10 this would not stop Britain leaving the EU; in other words, it would be a take-it-or-leave-it offer. Jeremy Corbyn responded by saying it was now clear the Tories wanted to turn the UK into a “bargain basement tax haven”.
Across from Westminster the judges of the UK Supreme Court ruled that MPs should have a vote to trigger the Article 50 process, contradicting the Government’s line. The Daily Mail had notoriously branded the judges “enemies of the people”.
But the court noted how MSPs should not have a vote, given the so-called Legislative Consent Motion, whereby Holyrood votes to agree to Westminster legislating on devolved matters, was merely a “political convention” and was not legally enforceable; in other words, there was no Scottish veto.
Yet, of course, the politics of it was a different matter.
Within days, the Scottish Parliament passed a symbolic motion, rejecting the Government’s decision to trigger Article 50 and begin the process of leaving the EU.
Gina Miller, an investment manager, who enacted the original High Court case against the Government to ensure MPs had a vote, had triumphed, stressing how the case was about more than Brexit but, rather, “about any Government, any Prime Minister, in the future being able to take away people’s rights without consulting Parliament”.
Yet, underlining the nasty tone to some of the national debate, Ms Miller revealed how during her campaign she had faced a torrent of abuse, some racist, and been subjected to death threats.
At the end of the month, the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee in a rain-lashed Cardiff, sitting opposite Nicola Sturgeon. Mrs May pledged to “intensify” the talks on Brexit with the increasingly frustrated devolved administrations while the First Minister warned that time was “fast running out” for an agreement to be reached; the threat of indyref2 hovered in the background.
By early February the Government had published its White Paper on Brexit, setting out its 12 “principles,” including migration control and “taking control of our own laws”. David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, insisted the country’s “best days are still to come” outwith the EU.
The European Union Bill enacting Article 50 zipped through Westminster with MPs backing it by 498 votes to 114.
But among those defying their leader were 47 Labour rebels, who voted against. Emphasising the split within the Opposition, Clive Lewis resigned from his Shadow Cabinet in protest over his party leader’s decision to whip his MPs in favour of triggering Article 50.
The first of a series of statistics, indicating a Brexit effect, appeared, showing that since the June 2016 referendum net migration had fallen by 49,000 to 273,000; the decline was mostly accounted for by a fall in international students coming to Britain. Critics claimed the “Brexodus” had begun.
As Tony Blair urged opponents of Brexit to “rise up” and fight to change people’s minds about leaving the EU, the Tories won a famous victory in the Copeland by-election; the first a serving government had won in 35 years while Ukip failed to make its breakthrough in Stoke Central, which Labour hung onto.
After the first EU bill became law, in late March and nine months after the referendum vote, Mrs May activated Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, meaning that two years hence, on March 29 2019, Britain would be formally out of the bloc.
In a following Commons statement, the PM declared this was “the moment for the country to come together”. It was, of course, wishful thinking.
Then, three weeks later, Mrs May u-turned and called a snap general election, saying her reasons were not party political – with a 20-point poll lead – but that she needed a healthy Commons majority to get all that detailed Brexit legislation through.
Amid the tragic backdrop of two terror attacks, the election was played out and proved disastrous for a hubristic premier, who, in the end, saw Mr Corbyn bolstered, her parliamentary majority rubbed out, and her government beholden to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, who would, later in the year, invoke their own Brexit veto.
During the campaigning, the PM hosted Jean-Claude Juncker for a catch-up on Brexit and to help set straight what was an increasingly fractious relationship between London and Brussels.
Later, it leaked that the European Commission President was astonished by Mrs May’s approach. She was “deluded” and was “living in a different galaxy,” suggested Mr Juncker. The PM dismissed the claims as “Brussels gossip,” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was said to be unhappy by the leak; Mr Juncker admitted the leak had been a “serious mistake”.
But the acrimonious tone was set to dominate the Brexit talks, which finally started in June; a year after the referendum vote.
Phase one was about the divorce settlement, citizens’ rights and the Northern Irish border.
On the issue of money, messages came out of Brussels that the EU was looking for £100 billion, which UK ministers baulked at. While both sides emphasised the importance of citizens’ rights, the stumbling block was whether or not there would be any continuing role for the European Court of Justice. Meanwhile, Whitehall insisted technology could maintain an open border on the island of Ireland.
Talks to-ed and fro-ed with some uncomfortable body language at the Brussels press conferences jointly given by Mr Davis and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier.
While the British delegation was all for Britain “having its cake and eating it,” the EU team was adamant the UK could not be seen to be better off after leaving the bloc as this might encourage others to follow suit.
Of the three talks baskets, the divorce settlement seemed the thorniest with Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, famously dismissing some of the numbers out of the Belgian capital as “extortionate” and told the Eurocrats they could “go whistle”.
As summer passed to autumn frustration began to set in as Mr Barnier urged the UK delegation to “get serious”.
Westminster returned when MPs backed the EU Withdrawal Bill, which would transpose all EU law into domestic law, by 326 votes to 290. But the Scottish and Welsh Governments pointed to a constitutional crisis ahead, claiming the legislation was a “naked power-grab”.
David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, called a media conference to declare that powers would eventually flow to Holyrood but that the UK Government wanted to ensure nothing harmed the country’s internal market, so that on some issues there would have to be a common UK framework.
Far from a power-grab, insisted Mr Mundell, the Brexit bill would mean a “powers bonanza” for Scotland. But a number of intergovernmental contacts would be made in the ensuing months with no seeming resolution to Edinburgh’s essential grievance: that powers from Brussels should go to Scotland first not Whitehall.
With relations with Brussels frosty, Mrs May travelled to the historic trade centre of Florence to raise the temperature and begin the diplomatic thaw. Using more emollient language, she suggested there should be a two-year implementation period, which would ease the UK’s departure from the EU. Plus, she stressed Britain would honour its commitments to the EU27 and made an opening offer on the financial settlement: £18bn.
Yet the PM’s friendlier tone did not meet the October deadline for the phase two talks to begin as Mr Barnier told another press conference how the process was in a “very disturbing state of deadlock”.
The EU27 maintained concerns about aspects of the three baskets with the Irish border issue now beginning to cause growing concern as Dublin insisted it was unconvinced that the UK emphasis on technology could solve the problem.
At Westminster, Labour used an old parliamentary technique to defeat the Government and get it to publish its so-called Brexit “impact assessments”. Speaker Bercow added to the pressure to publish.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee warned that failure to complete the introduction of a new customs system by Brexit in 2019 would be “catastrophic” with major disruption for businesses and transport. As it noted customs declarations might rocket fivefold, one official told MPs that, as a last resort, soldiers might have to be deployed at the border in the event of a no deal.
As the EU announced it was relocating its banking and medicines agencies to the continent and with them hundreds of jobs, Brussels announced the UK was no longer eligible to participate in the European Capital of Culture.
Five home contenders, including Dundee, were aghast. Claims of EU27 vindictiveness were made while opposition MPs demanded the UK Government compensate the home contenders, which had spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on their bids.
While the Tories were accused of being deeply split between the soft and the hard Brexiteers, Labour too came under fire for sending out mixed messages.
With its constituency more evenly split between Remainers and Leavers, Mr Corbyn had to tread a fine line but with different colleagues being vague about the means to the end of a “jobs-first Brexit,” a variety of conflicting signals were sent out.
Finally, Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, sought to clarify the party’s position but left many questions unanswered.
If Labour were in power, Britain, he explained, would have a “single market variant” with full access to the current single market, the country would be in “a” customs union, rather than the customs union, and there would be “easy movement” of people rather than the current free movement.
December proved another high watermark for Brexit as Mrs May and Mr Juncker held another dinner to try to push the process through onto phase two.
The Commission President issued a deadline of Monday December 4 to table the offer before a crunch European Council summit on Thursday December 14, when EU leaders were to decide if “sufficient progress” had been made to proceed to the next phase.
Much rested on getting a breakthrough as businesses warned they would initiate relocation plans if no deal was reached.
Tensions mounted. The PM, in an effort to salvage the talks and potentially her own premiership, went to Brussels for lunch with Mr Juncker to agree a diplomatic fudge that recognised the need for some “regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The smiles of a potential breakthrough, however, were soon replaced with frowns as once Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, heard of the compromise, she rang Mrs May to voice her concern.
At a subsequent brisk Brussels press conference, the PM admitted more consideration was needed. The DUP, bewildered by the very notion Northern Ireland could be treated differently from the rest of the UK, had vetoed Mrs May’s attempt to square the circle. Their leverage on propping up the Tory Government had been used.
The following morning, Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, telephoned her Conservative colleague and left her in doubt that any separate deal for Northern Ireland would “unpick the thread of the Union,” which she had fought to maintain all her political life.
Ms Sturgeon was quick to seize on the development and insisted that if Northern Ireland could have a separate EU deal to effectively keep it in the single market and customs union, so too should Scotland. Mrs May later made clear that any deal with the EU would be UK-wide.
In a 48-hour intensification of the talks, the PM later that week flew to Brussels for breakfast with Mr Juncker and Mr Barnier, where it was announced a deal had finally been reached. A week later at the year’s final European Council, the EU27 agreed “sufficient progress” had been made to move the talks onto transition and trade.
The nub of the deal was that the rights of all three million EU citizens living in the UK would be enshrined in law and enforced by UK courts, a divorce bill of up to £39bn to be paid over a number of years, and a guarantee of “no hard border” even if there were no deal. Some details were fudged but Mrs May at last had her political breakthrough.
But the Year of Brexit was not over as MPs defeated the Government on giving them a “meaningful vote” on the final agreement and ministers agreed to include the ability to extend the date of departure in exceptional circumstances.
Following concerns raised by Scottish Tory MPs, Mr Mundell agreed that the EU Withdrawal Bill would be changed to make crystal clear it was not a power-grab and would in no way undermine devolution.
As another JMC with the Scottish Government ended, the Scottish Secretary revealed that he had wanted to publish a list of powers the UK Government wanted swiftly to transfer to Holyrood but had not done so – at Edinburgh’s request. But Michael Russell, the SNP administration’s Brexit Minister, forcefully denied the claim.
Meanwhile, Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, made it clear that his Nationalist colleagues in the Scottish Government would demand that Holyrood would have to give its consent to the promised EU Implemention Bill, which towards the end of the Brexit process would put the withdrawal agreement into law. Thus, the potential for another constitutional crisis for Mrs May loomed.
Just before Christmas, Brussels announced that, actually, the UK’s implementation period would end after only 21 months in December 2020. But Downing Street insisted this was an opening negotiation offer and the UK still wanted it to last two years to March 2021.
Or, to put it another way, the to-ing and fro-ing of phase two had already begun. If 2017 was turbulent, hold onto your hats; 2018 looks like being another very bumpy ride.
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