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Politics

Brexit: not the least surprised

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IF it was a tiger that went in the tank, as enthusiastically advocated by Prime Minister Johnson, it was a paper tiger. And all that does is clog up the filters and prevent the engine running. Furthermore, cleaning out the debris is a difficult and expensive job.

But that’s always the same with Johnson. He bounces onto the stage, utters some singularly inappropriate phrases, prattles incoherently for a while and then buggers off to let everyone else – anyone else – sort out the details that he can’t be bothered with (which is all of them).

And so it has come to pass that those “future relationship” talks, even with the “tiger in their tank”, have got absolutely nowhere and have broken up early over “serious” disagreements, with Michel Barnier complaining of “lack of respect and engagement by the UK”.

“Our goal was to get negotiations successfully and quickly on a trajectory to reach an agreement”, Barnier said in a statement. “However, after four days of discussions, serious divergences remain”.

That, of course, comes as absolutely no surprise. If there is any surprise to be had, it’s that the talks lasted as long as four days. There have never been any indications that Johnson has been serious about these talks, so the likelihood was always that they were going to break up in disarray.

NO NEW PROPOSALS FROM UK
Barnier says that Brussels had “listened carefully” to Johnson when he did his “thing” about tigers, and made vacuous noises about wanting a “political agreement” over the summer. And now that the talks have broken down, the recriminations flow, to the point where not much sense can be made of them.

We learn from Barnier, for instance, that the EU has recognised British “red lines”. These include the role of the ECJ, the refusal to be bound by EU law, and a fisheries agreement that recognises the UK’s sovereignty. It has thus hinted at several concessions, across the board.
This is matched by a complaint that the EU’s willingness to be flexible on its initial demands in light of the British positions had not been met with similar understanding from Downing Street over Brussels’ red lines. Downing Street needed to “reciprocate with new proposals”, the EU says.

David Frost, on the other hand, seems to be in the market for extruded verbal material, saying virtually nothing at some length. His big thing is that the British side still wants “an early understanding of the principles underlying an agreement”, which he hopes can be secured by the end of July.

SHIFTING THE BLAME
Oddly enough, the normally astute Denis Staunton for the Irish Times seems to think that the abrupt end to these talks was “not only surprising but perplexing”.

Perplexing it may be – nothing to do with Johnson is ever straightforward – but surprising it never was. The writing has been on the wall so long it is starting to fade.

Staunton, however, takes some comfort from “the language on both sides”. He says it was “restrained” and Frost’s had none of the belligerence that often characterises his rhetoric towards Brussels.

The fact that Barnier chose not to give a press conference, he says, was seen by some as another happy augury but Staunton says it wasn’t. Simply, he was deferring to Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen, who gave a joint press conference later.

However, Barnier is also said to have accused British trade negotiators of “a lack of respect” and when von der Leyen and the German Chancellor got going, Merkel warned the EU Member States that they needed to be prepared for a no-deal TransEnd.

Why the tone of the two parties should thus give rise to such optimism isn’t immediately apparent. At this stage, with little to be gained either way – with only a very limited trade deal on the stocks, one of the greater concerns must be to establish a firm base for blame avoidance.

Barnier, in particular, will want to tell his domestic audience that the EU has gone the extra mile, not least because it then clears the way for the EU to do what it always does – screw the Brits.

A WEAK, UNLOVELY THING
Team Johnson, from the look of it, is away with the fairies anyway. And with Frost apparently trotting off to a new job at the end of the month (or not), he has good reasons for not starting a spat that he can’t finish.

But what makes this more than a little bit redundant – and so utterly tedious – is that we’re almost down to the level of two bald men fighting over a comb. Any deal done – if there is one done – must be measured not by what it includes but what is left out. So very little can be agreed in the time that anything delivered will be a weak, unlovely thing.

But the real giveaway is that the UK has yet to set out plans for how it wants an agreement to work, on areas as diverse its own state aid regime, to a fully functioning fishing policy.

Throughout the entire Brexit period the UK stance has been to let the EU make the running, and then knock down what it offers. There is only so much of that one can take before even the most patient of negotiators begins to feel they are being taken for mugs.

JOHNSON GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS
Yet, on fishing, in particular, Barnier is saying that there needs to be a “sustainable and long-term solution” on fisheries, taking into account the needs of European fishermen for certainty over their livelihoods. An effective all-encompassing dispute settlement mechanism is also necessary, to ensure both sides stick to their obligations.

Here, the issue is – as it is elsewhere – that the British government doesn’t have the first idea of how to manage a modern fishery. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has given way to Defra, which doesn’t even have “fisheries” in its title. Any expertise there was in the department has long gone.

Something about which we haven’t been hearing much of late is also of importance – governance. A little while back, this was of some importance, with the EU wanting a single, over-arching agreement, with standard rules and institutions, and a common dispute procedure.
Now we don’t seem to hear so much of this, but that doesn’t mean it is no longer important. Most likely, Barnier has given up on trying to get any sense out of Team Johnson and is just going through the motions.

THE EU CAN WAIT
The thing for sure here is that he doesn’t need to throw his toys out of the pram. All he has to do is wait until after December 31, and watch the Brits having hissy-fits when they discover what being outside the internal market really means.

In time – and perhaps when there is a different administration – Barnier (or his successor) can come back and we can all start talking again. Then perhaps the UK will have people who are prepared to behave like adults and look anew at what sort of relationship we need with our closest neighbours.

Until then, we are going to see a lot of this sort of ritual dance. It may die down during the holiday period and pick up the tempo as the autumn turns to winter. And there may be a last flurry of activity in the dying days of December, although that will be for show. Any agreement has to be ratified, so a last-minute deal is not on the cards.

Meanwhile, there will be more talks next week. These will be in London, another session of face-to-face meetings. I don’t expect we’ll get much more out of them than we did this week. If we do, then that really will be a surprise.

This article is reproduced by kind permission of Dr Richard North from his blog http://eureferendum.com/.

Dr Richard North is a veteran supported of Britain’s exit from the EU and co-author, with Christopher Booker, of ‘The Great Deception: The Definitive History of the EU’ and before that co-author of two other books on EU-related matters.

He was group research director of the EDD group in the European Parliament and has written numerous pamphlets and articles on EU matters.

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Politics

Local governments plug hole with £260m from Welsh Government

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WELSH Ministers have this week announced a funding boost of more than £260 million for local councils in Wales to provide them with the certainty they need to plan for the remainder of the year.

It will help cover increased costs, manage loss of income pressures, and will fund additional cleaning requirements for schools in response to the coronavirus crisis.

With the real possibility of further peaks during the autumn and winter months this investment will provide local authorities with the confidence to prepare their budgets for a potential second wave. The funds will be allocated on a claims basis.

UNPRECEDENTED

Minister for Housing and Local Government Julie James said: “Our local authorities have done a fantastic job of rising to the challenges of Covid-19, but we recognise the financial impact this has had on them.

We have been working closely with the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) and local authority leaders to understand the pressures and challenges they are facing, and the support needed to continue delivering good quality, integrated public services to communities across Wales.”

Finance Minister Rebecca Evans added: “Local councils have been at the heart of our response to Covid-19. This new package of financial support recognises the scale of the unprecedented challenges being faced by authorities across Wales and provides them with the certainty they need to continue to respond to the crisis and prepare for the rest of the financial year.”

Cllr Anthony Hunt, WLGA Finance and Resources told The Pembrokeshire Herald: “Councils, and the vital local services we provide, are at the forefront of tackling this pandemic and have been under extreme financial pressure. This funding guarantee will give them the confidence to plan with greater certainty for the remainder of the financial year.

I want to thank Welsh Government for working closely with local government on this funding package, and for taking the time to understand the pressures facing local services.

CONSERVATIVES CONCERNED

Reacting to the announcement this week (Aug 17) Shadow Minister for Local Government and Housing – Mark Isherwood MS – said: “According to the Welsh Government, this brings the total in the pot to stave off the worst effects of the pandemic to almost half a billion pounds.

“However, Welsh Conservatives’ analysis earlier in the year indicated that local authorities were likely to lose tens of millions of pounds revenue each month because of the outbreak, with deficits in Q1 and Q2 already totalling almost a third of a billion pounds* by the end of September.

“These losses of revenue could take generations to recover from, and we need to see just what the long-term plan is to prevent local authorities finding themselves in an even worse position.

“The Welsh Local Government Association’s (WLGA) own modelling suggests that that there is the potential for budget shortfalls depending on several complex and inter-linked factors, and so flexibility is more key now than ever.

“The Minister and her Party must be willing to consider all options to ensure that Councils can continue running their services.

“We Welsh Conservatives have already proposed capitalisation, which would allow for specified revenue expenditure to be viewed as capital expenditure, and so can be funded from capital resources such as borrowing, to provide financial flexibility to meet unexpected one-off costs.

“The WLGA has also pressed the Welsh Government to allow local authorities to borrow and invest in several significant capital programmes.

“By doing so, these actions would contribute to a wider economic stimulus package whilst simultaneously helping to improve performance and outcomes in relation to a range of other important shared policy objectives. The proposal totals £762m and would also help to ‘lock in’ and build upon positive, transformational changes already introduced to services in response to Covid-19.

“We cannot afford to let the effect of this virus damage local authorities’ ability to run as effectively and efficiently as they can.”

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Conservatives accused of contempt for devolution

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THE WESTMINSTER Government is undermining the devolution settlements of each of the UK’s nations according to opposition parties.

Just before the parliamentary recess, the Conservative Government published a White Paper on the future of the UK’s internal market. The same day, July 16, it opened a brief consultation. The Consultation lasted 28 days and ended yesterday, Thursday, August 13.

White papers are policy documents produced by the Government that set out their proposals for future legislation. White Papers are often published as Command Papers and may include a draft version of a Bill that is being planned. This provides a basis for further consultation and discussion with interested or affected groups and allows final changes to be made before a Bill is formally presented to Parliament.

The UK’s devolved administrations have reserved powers for a range of issues, including agricultural and animal welfare standards and building regulations.

The proposals advanced by Westminster would see powers of those two areas of policy removed from the devolved administrations’ control. Building regulations in England are both differently focused and of a lower standard than those in Wales. For example, harmonising building regulations around England’s lowest common denominator could scrap the Welsh Government’s regulation requiring sprinklers to be fitted in new homes.

The UK Government did not consult with any of the UK’s devolved administrations about its proposed legislation before publishing the White Paper and announcing an unusually brief consultation on such an important policy.

POWER GRAB? WHAT POWER GRAB? THAT POWER GRAB
When The Herald put the White Paper’s content to Conservative Shadow External Affairs Minister, Darren Millar, and asked about the change in powers over building regulations and animal welfare standards.

We received a furious response.

“To suggest that this is a power grab is utter nonsense,” fulminated Mr Millar.

We suggested no such thing. We asked only about two regulatory areas covered in a 104-page policy document.

Darren Millar continued: “As a result of the UK’s exit from the European Union scores of new powers are set to be transferred to the Welsh Parliament – so far from being a power grab, this is actually a significant power gain for Wales.

“These powers have never been held before by the Welsh Government and this legislation will give the Welsh Parliament additional levers which can be used to help ensure that economy of Wales recovers from the impact of Covid-19 while ensuring seamless trade across the UK.”
As Mr Millar said that ‘scores of new powers’ are heading the Welsh Parliament’s way, we invited him to identify some of them.

He did not answer in time for our deadline.

The problem for Mr Millar is Government line in the debate on the EU Withdrawal Agreement set out that Westminster will take some powers from Wales, even as it provides additional powers over other areas of policy.

The position was set out by the current Minister of State at the Wales Office, David TC Davies.
In the Withdrawal Agreement debate, David TC Davies said the following: “The reality is that the change will be called a power grab. I did not hear the phrase used today, but it will be described as a power grab. Of course, it is a power grab, and what a wonderful power grab it is, too. We are grabbing powers from Brussels and bringing them back to London.”

He continued: “The Government’s whole purpose is to ensure there is a single market within the United Kingdom. We cannot have a situation where different nation-states within the United Kingdom go off and do their own thing.”

The powers being lost to Westminster over agriculture and building regulations are not examples of devolved administrations ‘going off to do their own thing’ in the future. They are examples of devolved administrations which had exercised their powers and face their policies roll-back.

WESTMINSTER CLAWINGBACK POWER FROM WALESOther Welsh parties are less impressed by the White Paper. Cllr William Powell, the Welsh Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Agriculture and Rural Affairs, said: “In my view, the manner and content of this consultation demonstrate a lack of respect by the UK Government for the Welsh devolution settlement.

“Under the cloak of enabling Westminster to create a new UK internal market at the end of the Brexit transition period, this most ideological of governments is effectively putting to the sword decades of devolution, validated by the Welsh people in two referenda.”

William Powell continued: “The Bill would allow the UK Government to set out how the devolved administrations would interact with Westminster post-Brexit, compelling Scotland and Wales to accept whatever new standards – in the field of animal welfare, environment and food are built into trade agreements of the future.

“Whereas vital areas of policy, such as agriculture, food safety and the environment are currently overseen by the governments at Holyrood and Cardiff Bay, this UK government clearly wants to have ultimate control over issues previously determined by the EU. In other words, it represents a radical clawback of power, undermining Welsh democracy and giving Boris Johnson and his associates a free hand in post-Brexit negotiations with other countries.

“Welsh Liberal Democrats are committed to respecting the devolution settlement & the principle of Welsh Home Rule. Therefore we roundly condemn the UK Government’s cavalier tactics in this consultation.”

‘THIS IS A POWER GRAB’

For Plaid Cymru, Liz Saville Roberts MP said: “Four weeks and a series of loaded questions over the summer whilst Parliament isn’t sitting is all this Westminster Government has given people in terms of a consultation on a fundamental shift in the constitution of the UK.

“It is as if the Westminster Government cannot even hide its contempt for devolution.
“This is a power grab, plain and simple. From nakedly taking back competencies already held in Wales, to the fact that this legislation was not proposed jointly with the devolved administrations, the Westminster Government is chipping away at two decades of devolution.

“People will not fall for the Westminster double-speak of adding to devolution, these changes will only diminish Wales’s ability to carve its own path.”

NO DISCUSSIONS WITH WESTMINSTER
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We support having rules across the UK to regulate the internal market, but these rules must be agreed between the four Governments in the UK, each of which has their own responsibility for economic development. Any new system must have independent oversight and dispute resolution.

“Unfortunately, the UK Government did not manage to share the Paper with us, and Welsh Ministers have had no recent discussions with the UK Government on these issues. Any attempt to unilaterally impose a system will be deeply damaging.”

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Politics

Extra funding to tackle homelessness

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WALES’ Minister for Housing and Local Government, Julie James has confirmed up to £50m to support projects across Wales.

The funding aims to provide people with safe and secure homes to ensure they do not fall into homelessness.

The Welsh Government has reiterated their commitment to tackling homelessness, rehousing everyone who has been provided with emergency shelter during the coronavirus pandemic, and building on the initial £10m in funding announced in March by making additional £40m available for local authorities.

The initial phase of the homelessness response focused on ensuring everyone had accommodation where they could self-isolate if necessary and could follow public health advice on basic hygiene, hand washing and social distancing.

Phase 2 focuses on a longer term approach to transform services, innovate and build accommodation, with the ambition of ensuring everyone who was provided with emergency accommodation during the coronavirus pandemic has a clear route to permanent housing and providing high quality accommodation for those who are threatened with homelessness in the future.

The Welsh Government has also provided a package of support to make sure as many people as possible facing financial hardship as a result of the coronavirus pandemic remain in their private rented homes, sustaining tenancies and avoiding eviction due to rent arrears.

Last week a temporary increase in the notice period for eviction was announced, providing greater protection from homelessness for tenants in private rented and housing association accommodation.
In July, an extra £1.4m was announced to help tenants boost their household income and manage problem debt, through the Single Advice Fund. In addition, the new Tenant Saver Loan Scheme will provide an affordable way to cover rent arrears, or future months’ rent, reducing the risk of eviction and homelessness.

The loans will be paid directly to landlords and are available for tenants who were not in significant rent arrears prior to March 1 this year.

Julie James said: “The coronavirus has shone a light on housing in a way that few of us have seen before and reminded us all of the fundamental importance of good-quality affordable housing, a safe and secure home and strong and cohesive communities where people want to live and work. The best way we can tackle homelessness is by preventing it in the first place.

“I have been clear that I do not wish to see anyone forced to return to the streets. We have a unique opportunity to change the services and change lives for the better – and make homelessness rare, brief and unrepeated. We want to build on the success we have seen so far and change Wales’ approach to homelessness in the long term.

“To that end I have increased the overall homelessness phase 2 funding to up to £50m, which clearly demonstrates the level of commitment we have to ensuring we can make a truly significant and transformational step-change towards achieving our goal of ending homelessness in Wales.

“Local Authorities, working in partnership with third sector and other organisations have come forward with some highly ambitious, bold and innovative projects that not only draw on energy efficient, modern methods of construction but also join-up with other services, such as substance misuse, mental health, primary care and community safety. This reflects the fact that homelessness isn’t just a housing issue; it’s a public services issue and it’s about having access to those services where and when people need them.

“We’re not tinkering around the edges – this is about bold, long-lasting solutions.”

Plaid Cymru Shadow Housing minister Delyth Jewell MS said: “This announcement from the housing minister is a long overdue commitment to tackling both homelessness and the housing crisis. I look forward to working with the Welsh Government and local authorities to ensure money is targeted where it is needed.

“But there is always more to do. To truly address these long terms problems we need a housing first model, more affordable homes being built and ending no fault evictions for good.

“The Coronavirus has exposed the grim truth that homelessness is and remains a political choice that should have been tackled long ago. Access to housing should be a human right and Plaid Cymru will work to see this enshrined in Welsh law.”

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