Europe needs clarity from the UK14 July 2017 | 18:35 | The Telegraph
Apart from significant levels of mutual trade and investment, an estimated 400,000 British ex-pats are resident in Spain and around 120,000 Spanish citizens live in the UK, which is why negotiations over reciprocal rights after Brexit are so important. Despite the rebuff to Theresa May’s initial pledge to guarantee the rights of all EU nationals currently living here, we share the same aims; so this matter should be easy to settle with goodwill.
So, too, should the other key opening issue – the price of settling our outstanding obligations on departure. In the Commons on Tuesday, the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the sum being demanded – thought to be in the region of £60 billion – was “extortionate” and the EU could “go whistle” for it.
In a riposte yesterday, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said he didn’t hear any whistling but he did hear a clock ticking – the countdown to Britain’s exit in March 2019 under the terms of Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. This may seem a long way off but it will arrive very quickly. Moreover, final decisions will have to be made months before the deadline since the shape of the final deal, assuming there is one, will have to be put to Parliament.
We need to get on with it and the EU is clearly frustrated with what they see as British procrastination and confusion, partly caused by the decision to call a snap general election. Far from clarifying matters and giving Mrs May the authority to strike a hard bargain, it has weakened the British hand and emboldened senior ministers to make contradictory policy statements. In the Commons yesterday, with the Prime Minister absent, Damian Green said it remained the Government’s ambition to secure a deal but it was possible that a vindictive EU would seek to punish the UK. But why are no obvious preparations taking place for such an eventuality given the economic impact that no deal would have?
If it is our policy to leave the single market and the customs union, where are the plans for the new infrastructure needed to check goods and monitor movements? And if that is the Government’s policy, why do some ministers, like the Chancellor Philip Hammond, give the impression that it might not be? There is talk of friction within Whitehall, with some ministers excluded from key decisions. Even if the Government does not want to negotiate in public it should give a much clearer picture of its overall planning, if only to reassure the country that it is on top of things. But is it?
In an unusual intervention, the head of the National Audit Office, Sir Amyas Morse, has voiced his concern that an absence of leadership has left the country vulnerable to “vague” Brexit preparations. In particular, work on a new computerised customs system was too slow and could result in a “horror show” if officials were forced to process imports and exports manually.
Sir Amyas saw no signs that the necessary response to all eventualities was being coordinated across Whitehall and there was a serious risk of the UK not being ready. That is not good enough. This is the biggest peacetime challenge to face the country and voters will not easily forgive a government that makes a mess of it.
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