A further round of trade negotiations between the UK and EU ended on Friday, without any noticeable progress.
The talks were described as “tetchy” and “disruptive” and Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, said the UK was still wanting the “best of both worlds”.
Midweek, an unnamed EU source again raised the possibility of an extension to the transition period.
The source claimed that the UK could still secure an extension, even if it didn’t ask for one. All that’s required is for both sides to agree to extend, rather than requiring a formal request from the UK. Unsurprisingly, the UK government is sticking to its position that the transition will end on 31 December, with or without a trade deal.
Although the talks have largely been over key issues, such as fishing policy or maintaining a level playing field on standards, the rights of citizens were also discussed.
Against the background of legal action by the EU against the UK government over EU citizens’ rights, the minister for the cabinet office, Michael Gove, hit back on Thursday. In a letter to European Commission vice president, Maros Sefcovic, Gove said there was a “serious risk” that the EU would be in breach of its obligations under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA).
Gove suggested that EU citizens in the UK have a clearly laid out process – the settled status scheme – that provides reassurance and defined deadlines. He failed to mention the many issues surrounding the scheme, not least the cost, or the risk of being rejected or granted a lower “pre-settled” status.
By comparison, his complaint against the EU is that Brits in Europe have not been told what processes will affect them, which will vary by country, or how much time will be available for applications or registration.
While clear guidance on a country-by-country basis would be welcome, the implication that British citizens in the EU would be unprotected is false.
It is ironic that Gove is supposedly championing the rights of the Brits in the EU. I remember clearly how he told us, during the referendum campaign, that nothing would change.
Let’s not forget that – thanks to Theresa May, Gove, and his fellow Brexiters – our rights were downgraded through May’s obsession with immigration. We stand to lose our freedom of movement and other important rights, because of the ‘red lines’ defined by the UK government, not the EU.
At Friday’s press conference, Barnier reiterated the importance of citizens’ rights to the EU. He also advised that guidelines have been published, to support all 27 member states in meeting their WA commitments.
Throughout the entire Brexit campaign, British citizens in Europe were practically invisible to the British government. They were barely an afterthought, with most of us unable to vote. When the WA was finally signed by both parties, it provided a measure of reassurance.
The attitude and actions of the Spanish authorities, throughout the Brexit debate, have demonstrated more concern for our situation than we’ve seen from our own government. When we were threatened in 2019 with a “no-deal” Brexit, and the potential loss of our existing rights, the Spanish government acted swiftly and decisively to protect us.
We’re keen to know what processes the Spanish government will implement to secure our futures. Gove is right to say that some clarification is needed – and the sooner, the better. However, Gove seems overly concerned about this issue.
I trust that the Spanish government will take appropriate measures and allow time for us to complete whatever administration is required. In the meantime, anyone already officially registered in Spain should not lose sleep over acquiring new paperwork or an ID card.
I don’t accept Gove’s implication that the EU, or the Spanish government, would renege on their treaty obligations. If I had to gamble on who’s likely to breach treaty obligations, it wouldn’t be the EU.
Throughout the Brexit debate, and now the coronavirus crisis, the UK government has been keen to point the finger elsewhere. A willingness to accept any responsibility for mistakes is taken as a sign of weakness.
Failure to deliver PPE – not our fault, highest death rate in Europe – not our fault, failure to agree a trade deal – not our fault.
Whether the blame has been levelled at EU citizens, the EU, the opposition, the media or the British public, it has been inappropriate and childish. The UK government would have received far more respect if it had admitted its mistakes, apologised and explained how it will rectify matters.
It remains to be seen whether the British government will have a last-minute change of heart about a transition, as the June deadline approaches.
The chances of agreeing a trade deal by the end of this year are almost impossible. The true implications of leaving with no trade deal can only be estimated, and with a recession forecast with the coronavirus crisis, a delay is the only credible option.
The impact of the UK leaving with no trade deal on our lives here in Spain remains to be seen. Whether it affects the tourism industry or further devalues sterling, we’re going to notice.
There’s one thing on which you can rely. Whatever damage is done, it won’t be Boris Johnson’s fault! Or Gove’s. It’ll be the fault of the EU or – as EU Trade Commissioner, Phil Hogan, claimed last week -Covid-19 is “going to be blamed for all the fallout”.
Perhaps that’s why the UK government doesn’t want to extend the transition. The coronavirus crisis is a perfect scapegoat for everything.
By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain
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