The price of love? £25,700 a year, according to Theresa May

Those who marry non-EU nationals will need to earn £25,700 a year if they want their partners to join them in Britain. Is it fair that only the well-off can marry who they want?

There comes a time in any government's life where you reach a level of unpopularity such that you may as well dust off all of the half-arsed, mean-spirited policies you've ever dreamed up, and just throw them all out there. The point where your opponents are so tired and hoarse from trying to decry all your laughably objectionable new rules that they simply collapse into a defeated heap, while you roll your latest nasty ideas tank onto their collective lawn.

Yesterday we got to read about Theresa May's charming new ruse, the one about effectively stopping British citizens from marrying their foreign partners and living here, unless they have a good enough job. Ordinarily this might seem a little harsh, but I suppose if you can get away with selling off chunks of the NHS, you can get away with this.

I should probably declare a partial interest here; several years ago I was engaged to be married to someone who lived in Croatia. A foreigner! The relationship broke down in the end, but for a long time we intended to live together, and to do that we would have had to get married, as was the style at the time. I think it was at around this point when I started to get especially angry at whatever immigration clampdown the press was clamouring for. There was something about knowing that, one day, the person I intended to marry would become part of a statistic splashed across the front page of the Express to show quite how close our collective handcart was coming to Hell, that made me feel a little upset. Funny, that.

In the end, the relationship didn't work out, but on reflection I think it was probably better for said breakdown to be the result of my own enormous and continual failings as a human being, rather than because the Home Secretary has declared me too poor to be embarking on such romantic folly.

I understand that there's an imperative for governments to be seen to be Doing Something about immigration, but they seem to be forever finding increasingly ham-fisted and downright mean ways of doing it. Whatever the intention behind the policy, the end result of it is that it sets a minimum income requirement on marriage and makes it difficult for poorer couples to get married. This from a government who like the idea of marriage so much they would marry it, if that were at all possible.

Presumably the person in government whose job it is to screen potential policies for signs of unswerving evil has been made redundant, or is simply so overworked by this point that they can only read bits of each policy through the gaps in their fingers as they cradle their head in their hands, sobbing. If I were that person, I might gently suggest to the Tories that, if they want to look less like the wealthy, privileged 'arrogant posh boys' of common legend, they might want to think twice about floating a policy idea that effectively restricts love to people earning over £25,700 a year. Then again, if I were that person I'd probably be earning over £25,700 a year and in a position to stop caring about people poorer than me.

But hey, that's the free market, right? If you can't afford to fall in love with a foreigner, why not simply exercise your economic freedom and swap them for a more affordable partner, one who lives in the same country as you? Perhaps someone who knows the words to several Beautiful South songs, thinks the Eurovision is a massive fix, and has curiously forthright opinions about the 'correct' term to use for a small sandwich roll. It's really just simple economics! These are tough times which we've inherited from thirteen years of the previous government and difficult choices have to be made.

Perhaps if you'd just worked a little harder or got into a grammar school, you might have been able to marry that foreigner! Apply yourselves!

Here come the brides: well, not if Theresa May has her way. Photo: Getty Images

Jonathan Headington tweets: @ropestoinfinity

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.