Brussels is watching Westminster – hoping that MPs back the Lords and weaken the UK’s negotiating hand

Brussels is watching Westminster – hoping that MPs back the Lords and weaken the UK’s negotiating hand

There’s a lot on people’s minds here in Brussels just now: migration, Eurozone reform, trade tariffs and the unpredictable new Italian government are all the subject of heated debate.

Brexit may not always top the agenda on this side of the Channel, but rest assured that European Commission officials and EU27 leaders will pay close attention to today’s events in the House of Commons as MPs vote on another Lords Amendment to the Withdrawal Bill.

They know that the more domestic pressure heaped on the Government and the greater degree to which it its negotiating hands are tied, the better it is for the EU. Unfortunately, I fear some MPs do not appreciate this.

The EU’s aim in the Brexit talks is simple: to keep the UK as closely tied to the bloc’s rules and structures as possible. Ideally that would mean remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market and continuing to pay into the EU budget. Such an outcome would also remove the danger of having a former member state operating successfully in its back yard.

Its method of achieving this is also straightforward: make any alternative so difficult that David Davis and his team are left with no choice but to accept it, or at least substantial elements of it.

Hence the rejection outright of the Government’s proposals for avoiding a hard border in Ireland, despite the same suggestion having been included in the joint UK/EU withdrawal agreement last December. Our two plans for the future customs relationship have also been dismissed out of hand.

In the meantime, the Commission is pressing ahead with steps designed to demonstrate just how difficult life might be if we do not follow its preferred route out of the EU.

For instance, a paper presented to member states last Friday recommends refusing the UK’s request for continued access to the Europol Information System under which police forces are able to rapidly exchange information. Instead, it says, the UK would have to make do with “streamlined information exchange”.

Similarly, the EU has intervened to shut UK companies out of the latest round of contracts for the Galileo satellite programme and is proposing that they should also be excluded from projects financed by a new €13billion European Defence Fund, despite the obvious security, technical and financial advantages of our experts being involved.

This approach can be countered if the UK presents a strong, united front. EU Member States – particularly those with extensive business ties with Britain such as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands – do not want a ‘hard’ Brexit and will, at some stage, force the Commission to compromise. But why do that now when there are voices at Westminster calling for MPs to take control of negotiations and seeking to force the Government to stay in the customs union? Instead, they will continue playing hard ball for a while longer and wait to see whether MPs are going to do the EU’s work for it.

MPs must digest this before passing through the voting lobby today. By weakening the Government’s hand they will encourage the EU negotiators to push even harder for a deal that works only for them, not the UK.

Perhaps MPs should also consider what was voted for in the referendum. People did not think ‘let’s leave the EU, but keep freedom of movement’, nor did they say ‘let’s take back control by leaving the political institutions, but keep taking EU rules without a say’. And no-one believes we can become a global trading nation again without an independent trade policy.