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Weekly round-up: More positions, fewer migrants, canapes

by Luke Lythgoe | 25.08.2017

This week Theresa May has been wooing restive backbenchers with canapes and prosecco at Chequers. Meanwhile her government is continuing to pour out position papers outlining what it wants from the Brexit negotiations. Brussels is still putting together a full response, but already seems less than impressed.

New, unexciting positions

Following last week’s headline-grabbing papers on customs arrangements and the Irish border, David Davis’s Brexit department has released a new flurry of documents basically proposing that as much as possible be kept the same.

The government wants “close and comprehensive arrangements” on cross-border legal disputes on family, consumer and business matters. Another paper said that existing safety and standards tests for consumer goods carried out before Brexit should still be valid in both the EU and UK – sparing manufacturers red tape and duplicate testing. The UK also wants to be “fully involved” in EU data protection after Brexit, potentially playing an “ongoing role” in regulation.

But the big position paper this week was on dispute resolution between the EU and UK, and the future role of the European Court of Justice in that. May seems to have blurred her red line on this issue, stating only that the “direct jurisdiction” of the ECJ will end. That word, “direct”, is at odds with her Lancaster House speech. Hard-Brexiters, who don’t even want indirect ECJ involvement in UK laws, say it’s a climbdown. Others argue the ECJ red line was daft to begin with, and this new approach demonstrates a more pragmatic Brexit plan.

Missing migrants?

Thursday’s front pages were clogged with immigration stories ahead of the Office for National Statistics’ quarterly data dump. Total net migration in the year ending March 2017 was 246,000, down 81,000 on the same time last year. More than half of that change was due to net migration of EU citizens falling by 51,000.

The implications of this “Brexodus” for the UK economy were hammered home in a report from the Food and Drink Federation warning that a workforce shortage could leave a third of its businesses unviable.

No doubt the Home Office accidentally informing 100 EU nationals they were being deported has done little to make Europeans feel welcome.

But the big migration headline was that a new method of counting international students out of the country had revealed only 4,600 had overstayed their visa in 2016/17 – as opposed to the tens of thousands and “industrial scale abuse” of the system picked up by Brexiters in previous figures.

The economy

Employers’ confidence has fallen again this month with 31% now expecting the economy to worsen in the coming year. Consumer spending is at its weakest since 2014, leading to warnings that Britain might be dragged into a recession. Estate agents have warned that house prices will rise much more slowly this year as property market weakness spreads beyond London.

The government is also reportedly facing a multibillion-pound shortfall in funding for schools, hospitals, social housing and other projects as the European Investment Bank has effectively imposed a moratorium on long-term loans to the UK. Meanwhile the euro climbed to an eight-year high against the pound.

The BBC, presumably looking for some balance (or just a silver lining), faced a backlash for prominently covering an unpublished report by a group of pro-Brexit economists promising a £135 billion annual boost from a hard Brexit. This view has been widely discredited by the majority of economists.

What people said…

Scottish and Welsh leaders Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones met this week and promised to work together on amendments to the government’s Repeal Bill “to provide a constructive way forward” and avoid a government “power grab”. Jeremy Corbyn entered the fray too, using his tour of Caledonia to demand the government give new EU powers straight to Scotland after Brexit.

Even further across the sea than usual, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar used a trip to the US-Canada border to declare that he is “confused and puzzled” about the UK’s post-Brexit customs plans. Read: the UK government seems confused and puzzled about the UK’s post-Brexit customs plans.

Over in Germany, the EU’s enlargement commissioner used an interview in the Suedeutsche Zeitung to call for a hardened policy towards Turkey, which is moving “farther and farther away from Europe”. Remember when the Brexiters swore that Turkey would be in the EU by 2020?

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Edited by Alan Wheatley