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Brexit: Summer in Limbo

While our MPs are off on holiday until September, at CLASS we’ve been taking stock of where our representatives have left us on the biggest issue of the day (and probably the next few years), Brexit. Here are the three big issues we’ll be thinking about over the summer:

1. Negotiations don’t seem to be going well.

It’s difficult to believe that the Brexit vote was only 13 months ago. It looks like the timescale for negotiations is starting to hit home – although we will leave in March 2019, we will effectively need a deal by autumn 2018 so that it can go through the European Parliament. On top of this, EU negotiators have insisted that the so-called divorce bill and rights of EU citizens are settled before any negotiations on our future relationship.

In his press conferences, chief EU negotiator Michael Barnier has stated that the UK has been unable to offer clarity on many of its positions. On top of this, there are still multiple reports of splits in Theresa May’s cabinet over the Brexit strategy. Given that Barnier has pledged not to open the next stage of negotiations until sufficient progress is made, it’s not looking good.

2. We’ll have a transition period after Brexit.

With reports of slow progress in negotiations, we should welcome Phillip Hammond’s confirmation this week that the government is expecting a transition period of around three years post 2019 where our relationship with the EU will be similar to how it is now. It remains to be seen if three years would actually be long enough to negotiate some sort of trade deal; the last trade deal the EU negotiated (with Canada) took seven years.

However, at this stage a commitment to a transition period means there should be less chance of us crashing out of the EU with no deal at all. This is good news in the context of slow negotiations. Furthermore a report released this month found that no deal would cause a further fall in wages and rising inflation. It’s also worth noting that YouGov polling last March found the majority of people would reject a Brexit deal that left them worse off – it’s become very difficult to justify accepting no deal.

3. The government has realised that cutting immigration isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The government has mishandled the migration debate for many years, setting consistently missed arbitrary targets on migration numbers and demonising immigrants and refugees. We saw a dramatic rise in hate crime post referendum, and the campaign was dominated by misinformation and hate speech about immigration.  

Not only does hardened rhetoric on cutting immigration hurt our communities, it will damage our economy and the institutions we care about. 

There’s no arguing with the numbers: 4% of nurses and 10% of doctors in the NHS are from elsewhere in the EU and 40,000 EU nurses are projected to leave post Brexit. Without immigrants, the NHS can’t function. There’s no quick fix either, it takes three years to train a nurse and up to 16 to train a doctor. But it’s not just the NHS – key UK industries rely heavily on both skilled and unskilled EU immigrants. In our biggest manufacturing industry, food and drink, 30% of the workforce are from the rest of the EU. Any workers who leave voluntarily or are refused the right to stay will have to be replaced, and that could take a long time.

The government has now announced a review into the impact of EU migrants on the UK labour market and wider economy. While this report would have been welcomed a couple of years ago, it won’t come out until September 2018, when realistically we will be trying to finalise Brexit negotiations before the end of 2018. 

Overall, it’s still a mixed and murky picture on Brexit. There are signs that the government might finally (and belatedly) be looking at EU immigration in a more practical way. Confirmation on a transition deal should be welcomed, but we haven’t been enhancing our global reputation during Brexit negotiations so far. While negotiations continue in the background, we’ll be waiting until the autumn for a clearer picture of Brexit. Let’s hope this is just a shaky start, and that we’ll start to see a more constructive approach to the most important negotiation we’ve faced in our lifetimes.

Work areas: Europe. Tags: brexit, European Union.