Brexit Minister reports slow and no Brexit progress when questioned by Parliament

Dominic Raab, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, was called as a witness by the Parliamentary Committee charged with scrutinizing Brexit yesterday (29 August 2018).

We reported his summons last week to answer questions on: “the state of play in the negotiations; the Ireland / Northern Ireland backstop; the proposed new Facilitated Customs Arrangement; and preparations for a no deal outcome.”

Raab said he is confident that a general withdrawal deal between UK and EU is: "well within our sights" – and thought were about 80% complete.  However, he refused to share any further details of that work in order to protect the integrity of the negotiations.

He denied reports that Michel Barnier has turned down UK requests for extended meetings in Brussel, saying to the Committee that he had: “a good professional and personal rapport" with EU Chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier – and that he would be holding a "long" meeting with him on Friday [31 August].“

Raab told the Cimmittee that the UK is:  "bringing ambition, pragmatism, energy and if - and I expect it will be - matched, we get a deal."

The Brexit Secretary admitted that there has been little recent progress on the issue of the Irish border.  "I don't have the solution to give you yet," he told the Committee, adding that: "detailed" and "interesting" work on the border issue was continuing.

On the £39bn Brexit "divorce bill", Raab said a no-deal scenario could affect arrangements over payments to the EU.  He confirmed that both sides hope to agree a divorce deal with a statement on future trading relations expected by the next EU summit [17 October 2018] – however, Raab suggested that deadline could slip, saying there was a "possibility that it may creep beyond" that date.

"I don't think it could be safely assumed on anyone's side that the financial settlement as has been agreed by the withdrawal agreement would then just be paid in precisely the same shape or speed or rate if there was no deal."

And he rejected claims by pro-EU Labour peer Lord Liddle that any deal document was likely to be "vacuous" and "opaque", saying he expected it to contain a "degree of detail" and some "clear choices".

Addressing the question of who is in control of Brexit, Raab told the Committee that Civil Servants will no longer have to face questions from MPs or Peers.  From now on, only Ministers only will: "come and be accountable" to Parliamentary Committees on Brexit.  At the previous meeting [July 2018] Olly Robbins, the Prime Minister’s chief Brexit advisor, had accompanied the Brexit Secretary in a joint appearance and ‘grilling’.

At the same time that Raab was facing Parliament, David Lidington - Cabinet Office Minister and ‘de facto’ Deputy Prime Minister - was addressing a business conference in France.  He suggested there were only two choices on the table as Brexit talks entered a critical phase: "With exactly seven months until the end of Article 50 process and less than two months ahead of the October European Council, we face the choice between the pragmatic proposals we are discussing now with the European Commission, or the risk of there being no deal.”

Lidington rejected all other scenarios as they: “do not meet the level of ambition or the outcome we all want.”

And Michel Barnier was also speaking on Brexit – in his case in Berlin.  He said that the EU was "prepared to offer Britain a partnership such as there never has been with any other third country".  However, it would not permit anything that weakened the single market:  “We respect Britain's red lines scrupulously.  In return, they must respect what we are. Single market means single market.  There is no ‘single market a la carte”.

The pound that had fallen ahead of Raab’s appearance before Parliament fell – and then rose 0.6% again following the EU chief negotiator's comments.

Background

The Brexit Secretary had vowed to increase the pace and frequency of talks with the EU’s Michel Barnier when he took over from David Davis.  The previous Secretary quit in protest at Theresa May's ‘White Paper’ on post-Brexit trade and relations with the EU after Britain leaves.

Ireland / Northern Ireland border:  The UK and the EU both agree they want to avoid a ‘hard’ border - but there is no agreement as yet on how to do that.  And yesterday, Dominic Raab said that we are no nearer a solution.

If negotiations fail, both EU and UK have said that a "backstop" is needed - but this, too, remains controversial and there is no clear definition of the Irish border ‘safety net’ if no wider Brexit deal - or some as yet to be developed technological solution - cannot keep it as frictionless as present.

The EU presently proposes a backstop with Northern Ireland staying in the European customs union, the single market, and the EU VAT system.  Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator has emphasised that this ‘backstop’ can only apply to Northern Ireland.

The UK has rejected this EU proposal as it would: “threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK.”  Instead, Theresa May has suggested a backstop that would see the UK as a whole remaining aligned with the EU customs union for a limited time after 2020.   Note that the UK counter-proposal contains nothing about single market regulatory issues - which are probably more important than customs in terms of maintaining a soft border.

If there is no Withdrawal Agreement, no transition period, and no backstop we have a ‘hard’ - and potentially chaotic - Brexit.

Reference

Full interview – almost an hour-and-three-quarters - has been made available by Parliament and can be seen at:

https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/c3d76b8e-f288-4d1a-8f83-554c918fb808

John ShuttleworthComment