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Brexit omnishambles - the 6 moments EU negotiations could end in chaos

Have British voters realised Brussels expects them to pay for EU officials' pensions yet?

Michel Barnier is growing frustrated. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator wants to start talks on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. In recent weeks, his team has consolidated the EU’s opening negotiating position. But Britain’s tumultuous election campaign and the shock election result have left our political class in disarray.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, the discussion about Brexit has turned to a rethink of what our future relationship with the EU should look like once we leave. But in reality, the first months – even years – of the negotiations will be focused on how to withdraw from the EU, rather than the new deal. The European Commission has made clear that no future relationship will be discussed until sufficient progress is made on the withdrawal arrangements, so the stakes are high for the UK. If it doesn’t get this stage right, then there is little hope of a future deal of any sort.

The common assumption in the UK is that the withdrawal agreement will come down to money: there’ll be some horse-trading over the total Brexit bill, and a final number will be hammered out that satisfies both sides. But there’s no guarantee this negotiation will be a simple administrative matter. There are major differences in principle that separate the two sides. In particular, there are six big challenges that could send the negotiations into a tailspin before they barely begin.

1. Who is an EU citizen in the UK?

The UK government generally refers to the three million EU citizens currently living in the UK and the one million UK citizens living in the EU. But the EU27 are clear that they want the rights of EU citizens who formerly lived or worked in the UK to be protected too, as well as their family members. This would shift the parameters of the discussion dramatically. To illustrate the difference, the UK’s data on National Insurance number registrations suggest that more than 5.6 million EU citizens have registered at some point in the last 15 years. The government may well balk at offering permanent free movement rights to this large group.

2. What free movement rights are protected?

The European Commission is clear that all free movement rights should be protected – including rights of residence and work, rights to benefits, and the right to be accompanied by family members. It’s likely that the UK government plans to dispute some of these rights – particularly those that have proved the most controversial among the public, such as the right to claim child benefit with respect to children not living in the UK. So expect further rows here.

3. How much is the Brexit bill?

Next comes the financial settlement. The most troublesome issue here is the matter of future EU spending commitments that will be made post-Brexit. The EU expects the UK to not only pay its fair share of unpaid spending commitments made in annual budgets up until it leaves in 2019; it also expects the UK to pay for spending planned in the 2014-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework that will not be formalised as annual budget commitments until after Brexit. From the EU’s perspective, these plans were agreed while the UK was still a member. But the UK may well argue that, given they will not appear as commitments in the EU’s annual budget until after it leaves, it is under no obligation to pay. The stakes here are high: Bruegel’s estimates put the UK’s gross contribution to these payments in the tens of billions.

4. What about pensions?

Another budgetary issue likely to dominate the negotiations is the payment of the pension liability for EU officials. The UK is likely to seek to cover the pension costs of UK officials only. But the Commission is "nationality blind" and will expect the UK to pay its proportionate share of the pension liability for all EU officials. The FT’s Alex Barker estimates that this could reach into the hundreds of millions of Euros annually.

5. Who keeps everyone in check?

Prime Minister Theresa May has made clear that Brexit will end the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the UK. The EU, however, has argued that the CJEU should oversee the withdrawal agreement. The EU is only willing to countenance an alternative dispute resolution mechanism on certain matters if it guarantees the level of independence and impartiality offered by the CJEU. A disagreement on governance therefore seems inevitable.

6. And finally, what on earth do we do about Northern Ireland?

The other big question for the withdrawal negotiation is the Northern Irish border. But here there are tensions within the UK’s own position. On the one hand, the Brexit white paper commits to “as seamless and frictionless a border as possible”. On the other hand, the government is clear that it wants to leave the Common Commercial Policy and Common External Tariff, which would necessitate some form of customs border. In order to square this circle, the UK might try to negotiate a customs deal that precludes customs checks but allows the UK to set its own trade policy. This might well be dismissed by the Commission as impossible. Without creative solutions, this issue could reach an impasse.

Of course, none of these problems are insurmountable. With enough negotiating guile and imaginative thinking, solutions could be found. But in order to overcome these negotiating hurdles, the UK government will need to show an impressive degree of flexibility. The alternative will simply be a total breakdown in talks at the outset – and potentially the realisation of the "no deal" scenario that both sides want to avoid. With the countdown to Brexit underway, MPs reeling from the shock election result, and the government days away from embarking on the negotiations, now is the time for a considered, consensual approach to the forthcoming talks.

Marley Morris is a senior research fellow specialising in migration at the Institute for Public Policy Research. 

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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