U.K. Seeks Progress on Citizens’ Rights as Brexit Talks Resume

  • Brexit Secretary Davis in Brussels for second round of talks
  • Hammond differs with Fox on duration of post-Brexit transition

Round Two of Brexit Talks Kicks Off in Brussels

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Brexit Secretary David Davis urged U.K. and European Union negotiators to push for progress on resolving thorny questions around the rights of citizens resident in each other’s nations during the second round of divorce talks starting Monday in Brussels.

“It’s incredibly important to make good progress,” Davis said as he met EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels.

Michel Barnier and David Davis in Brussels, July 17.

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Davis is in a rush to move talks toward the crucial issue of future trade even as open divisions in the Cabinet back home make it hard for Europe to know what Britain wants. A Sunday Times newspaper story on the divisions illustrated Prime Minister Theresa May’s tenuous grip on power with an image of Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson aiming pistols at each other.

With the clock ticking down to Britain’s scheduled EU exit in March 2019, citizens’ rights is one of three areas, along with the Irish border and Britain’s exit bill, that Barnier says need “sufficient progress” before he’ll discuss the future relationship. That will be crucial for the country’s future economic health, and clarity on it is needed to put business at ease.

“It’s absolutely clear that businesses, where they have discretion over investment, where they can hold off, are doing so,” Hammond said Sunday on BBC Television’s “Andrew Marr Show.” “And you can understand why. They’re waiting for more clarity about what the future relationship with Europe will look like.”

Squabbling Ministers

Envoys will negotiate in Brussels through Thursday. They’ll attempt to hammer out an agreement on what rights some 3.2 million EU citizens in Britain and another million Britons living in the EU will retain after Brexit.May’s proposals last month met a tepid reception from her EU counterparts, who said they didn’t go far enough.

Davis has warned May repeatedly that the uncertain fate of the citizens was souring his meetings with member states, two people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg this month. Even so, she rejected his pleas to make an unconditional pledge on their rights.

May faces the daunting task of navigating Brexit after being stripped of her majority in the House of Commons in June’s election, while holding her Conservative government together amid squabbling ministers and talk of a potential putsch. 

Some 30 Tory lawmakers would back a leadership bid by Davis, the Sunday Telegraph reported, citing unidentified allies of the Brexit secretary including two former cabinet ministers. The Telegraph cited an unidentified cabinet minister as accusing Hammond of trying to frustrate Brexit, and treating pro-leave colleagues as if they were pirates who had kidnapped him.

Polling Woes

Capping the premier’s woes were two surveys in the weekend papers: a Survation poll for the Mail on Sunday that put the opposition Labour Party two points ahead of May’s Tories, and an Opinium survey that found 57 percent of people think May should resign before the next scheduled general election in 2022.

More divisions were exposed on Sunday when Hammond said transitional arrangements for Britain leaving the European Union are likely to last a couple of years, rather than the few months suggested by Trade Secretary Liam Fox.

“It depends how long we need to put in place new customs systems, new migration systems; these things can’t be magicked up overnight,” Hammond said. “We’re not going to be talking a couple of months, we are going to be talking a couple of years.”

Hammond is a leading advocate in the cabinet for a so-called soft Brexit, in contrast to campaigners for a clean break such as Fox. The trade secretary said in a Bloomberg TV interview on July 13 that he would be “very happy” with a transition period of just “a few months.”

‘Overpaid’ Workers

Speaking on BBC TV’s “Sunday Politics” show, Fox sought to downplay differences with Hammond. “As long as we leave in March 2019, then I’m happy, as long as we’ve got a very time-limited transitional period to make it work for business,” he said.

The infighting goes further than Brexit. At stake is whether May will be able to survive through the summer at the rate her ministers are attacking each other.

The Sunday Times cited five unidentified sources as saying Hammond had described public-sector workers as “overpaid” during the cabinet meeting last week, and was criticized by Johnson for the statement. Johnson is among ministers who’ve suggested the Treasury’s cap on public-sector pay should be eased. Meanwhile, Saturday’s Sun newspaper reported that Hammond made a sexist comment about women driving trains.

“Some of the noise is generated by people who are not happy with the agenda that I have, over the last weeks, tried to advance of ensuring that we achieve a Brexit which is focused on protecting our economy,” Hammond said.

Two reports set for release on Monday illustrate the tricky path May must navigate as she tries to balance the wishes of those who want to soften Brexit by staying in the single market and customs union, and those who are prepared for the country to drop out even if no deal on future ties is reached.

‘Massive Venture’

The group Migration Watch, which argues for lower immigration, said in a report that if the U.K. remains in the single market and thus subject to free-movement rules after Brexit, net migration from the EU is likely to continue at about 125,000 people a year for at least the next decade, keeping overall annual net migration at about 250,000. May has vowed to pull out of the single market and cut immigration to the “tens of thousands.”

A University of Sussex study focusing on the food supply showed the potential consequences of no deal: tariffs of as much as 22 percent, the need to replace a “vast array” of food standard institutions across Europe, and tricky questions of how to replace EU subsidies and farm laborers who often take seasonal work that British citizens don’t want. The U.K. food system is “like the rabbit caught in the headlights, with no goals, no leadership, and eviscerated key ministries,’’ the academics wrote.

“We keep being told by our politicians that Brexit can be delivered easily,” Gus O’Donnell, who as a former cabinet secretary was once the country’s top civil servant, wrote in the Observer on Sunday. “This isn’t correct. Believe me, we are embarking on a massive venture. There is no way all these changes will happen smoothly and absolutely no chance that all the details will be hammered out in 20 months.”

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