3 May 2017

Theresa May doubles up on anti-EU rhetoric

theresa may at lectern

Theresa May has delivered a warrior queen address in front of No 10 after her chat with Her Majesty. She spoke of Brexit talks being sabotaged (my word, but the spirit of her remarks) by Brussels. She spoke of “threats” from Brussels, where some don’t want the Brexit talks to succeed. There’s every chance, according to her own political calculations, that the Brexit bill dominating the headlines was working its magic for her with many voters. But that, for Theresa May, wasn’t enough. She decided to double up on the anti-EU rhetoric.

No doubt her campaign aides will be thrilled, based on their focus group assessments of what some punters like to hear their PM saying. But there will be plenty of others, senior Tories amongst them, who wonder whether the PM is being so confrontational that she is pushing herself into a hardline position on the EU negotiations that could make a deal impossible.

Since the PM announced an election there has been one school of thought that says Mrs May is fighting for a big mandate in this election so she can make the concessions in the negotiations which she couldn’t make if held to ransom by a small number of Brexit hardliners exploiting her small majority. Adherents of that view may be scratching their heads after that Prime Ministerial address wondering if they’ve quite called it right.

The PM takes the prize for belligerent rhetoric but in Brussels there’s been a toughening up of positions in the last few days as well. The leak, widely attributed to Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief aide, Martin Selmayr, of what Downing Street considers a partial account of last Wednesday’s dinner, suggested Mrs May’s government was delusional about Brexit.

Following on from that, today there have been headlines suggesting
the UK could be in for an even bigger Brexit bill than €50/60 billion one which Brussels has been floating. Now there’s a €100 billion figure knocking around and it is no accident it is being talked about.

Senior figures in Brussels have been re-working the numbers for the Brexit Bill, putting in some additional costs and subtracting some assets that were previously thought to be numbers the British could set against the bill.

Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, said to journalists at the Brussels press conference that he wouldn’t be drawn on numbers but behind the scenes, senior Brussels figures have been guiding visitors that tougher numbers have been prepared, in part in response to pressures from member countries.

But another toughening up exercise in the Brussels position also seemed to show its face today. It had been thought that the EU would be pursuing full EU rights (welfare, healthcare, right to work etc) for all EU citizens living in Britain until the day they died or pursuing a guaranteed automatic right of UK residency for EU citizens who have lived in the UK for five years (including those that arrive the day before Brexit happens in March 2019 and then stay on). What the EU negotiator outlined today was a plan to go for both of these proposals at the same time.

It looks like Brussels is maximising both its demands. That could mean that it wants to settle somewhere in the middle of the Brexit bill numbers and somewhere below the full demand on EU citizens’ rights. But when David Davis, the Brexit Secretary was asked about the Brexit bill this morning he seemed to rubbish not just the bigger €100 billion number but also the talk of €50bn or €60bn.

And you can imagine No. 10 getting very panicked about signing up to a deal that gives lifetime full welfare access to an EU citizen who arrives in March 2019. These EU citizens would have the right to bring in a potential spouse from a non-EEA country which UK citizens don’t automatically have. (It would apply to a negligible number of people but you can see a Daily Mail headline that looked at it differently.)

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