Last weekend, Angela Merkel debated her opposite number Martin Schulz on television, ahead of this month’s election. What was billed as a ‘duel’ between the German Chancellor and her Social Democrat challenger, was actually more of a ‘tea dance’.
Largely agreeing with Merkel throughout, Schulz made little impact. With a fortnight to go until the 24 September election, it’s now almost certain the Christian Democrats will prevail. Having led her party since 2000, and Europe’s largest economy since 2005, Merkel is set to win another term.
The EU’s Brexit negotiators were apparently ‘flabbergasted’ after their British counterparts launched a legal critique of the Brexit ‘divorce bill’ last week. UK civil servants spent three hours on a detailed line-by-line rebuttal of EU demands for a €100bn (£92bn) settlement. ‘It did not do down well,’ said one Brussels source.
These Brexit negotiations just got serious – and not a moment too soon. The UK is under no legal obligation whatsoever to pay the EU to leave. I’ve never argued we should pay nothing and am not now. We want to exit on good terms, after all. Yet when it comes to the financial side of these Article 50 talks, it is Britain, not the cash-strapped EU, which holds most of the cards.
High summer marks ‘the silly season’ in journalistic parlance. Amidst a dearth of news stories, hacks scramble around for material – and much speculative nonsense finds its way into print.
We’ve seen important and, indeed, disturbing news this summer. Media attention over the last week has rightly focused on Charlottesville, Virginia. And what looks like another terrorist attack in Europe – this time Barcelona – now leads the bulletins.
The UK fishing fleet, around 6,000 vessels, lands some 708,000 tonnes of fish a year, worth almost £800m. The entire industry, including packing and processing, accounts for under 0.1pc of GDP. Fishing, though, was once a large employer. It is also, for many, hugely symbolic of our relationship with Europe.
The UK is withdrawing from the London Fishing Convention, Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced last week. This was welcome and important. When it comes to fishing, the gains from Brexit are clear, relatively immediate and should appeal to multiple interest groups.
“En Marche!” That’s the message of Emmanuel Macron – the telegenic “independent” inaugurated today as the youngest ever President of France. Can Macron get the moribund French economy “on the move” as his slogan suggests? Can this 39-year old, with only two years of political experience, no Parliamentary party and having never held elected office, succeed where so many have failed, injecting some dynamism into France? And can he re-invigorate the crisis-ridden European Union.
Much is at stake. The world’s sixth-biggest economy, France is also the second-largest member of the eurozone – a key player, economically and diplomatically, if the single currency is ever going to work. Having seen off Marine Le Pen, can Macron now drive jobs, growth and broader French prosperity, so keeping bad-tempered euro-populism in check?
“Events over the last few days have shown some in Brussels don’t want these talks to succeed, don’t want Britain to prosper”. That was Theresa May’s understated response to the merde tipped on her by Jean-Claude Juncker.
The President of the European Commission attended a private Downing Street dinner and acted courteously all evening. His henchman then told a German newspaper the UK Prime Minister is “deluded” for suggesting any “exit payment” should be linked to a mutually beneficial UK-EU free-trade agreement. That’s annoying. The Commission then demanded the UK pays €100bn to leave the EU, up from the earlier €60bn estimate, while accusing May of “living in another galaxy”. That’s annoying too.
Having last week announced his intention to leave Parliament after 34 years, Former Cabinet Minister Peter Lilley used his final Prime Minister’s Questions to wish Theresa May “Godspeed”. The member for Hitchen and Harpenden also asked his party leader if she still recognized, when it comes to the UK’s Article 50 negotiations, “that to get a reasonable deal we must accept that no deal is better than a bad deal”?
May famously used this phrase in her pivotal Lancaster House speech on Brexit in January. In stark contrast to her predecessor, who foolishly declared up front his support for Remain in last summer’s referendum on European Union membership, whatever the outcome of his “renegotiation”, May took a much tougher line.
“After nine months on the launch pad,” wrote Boris Johnson in the Telegraph earlier this week, “Britain has finally engaged the most famous ignition sequence in diplomatic history”.
The Foreign Secretary was referring, of course, to Theresa May’s triggering last Wednesday of Article 50. The UK now has two years to agree the terms under which it will leave the EU, while trying to determine the nature of our future relationship with the remaining 27 member states.
As one Brexit hurdle is cleared, the doom-mongers erect another. Ahead of last June’s referendum, the Treasury warned ad nauseam that voting to leave the European Union would spark “an immediate and profound economic shock”.
Since that vote, with the economy holding up regardless, we’ve seen endless legal battles and Parliamentary shenanigans stopping the Prime Minister from even getting the Brexit ball rolling.
Theresa May is warning Tory rebels that if Parliament gets a meaningful vote on Brexit, the European Union will be “incentivized” to offer the UK a “bad deal”. She is right, of course.
But that doesn’t mean the Prime Minister should dismiss the prospect of the House of Lords inflicting a second defeat on the government, with peers today set to back an amendment requiring Parliament to endorse the UK’s final Brexit deal. May should, in contrast, turn what seems like an inconvenience to her political and diplomatic advantage.