Mark’s Brexit Week for Transport

As I predicted last week, the British Prime Minister Theresa May attempted to reboot the stalled Brexit talks in her Florence speech by changing the tone and above all the content of Britain’s Brexit strategy, not least by offering a transitional period, or implementation phase as she insists on calling it.

Effectively she is committing Britain to be bound by EU rules and obligations, including payments into EU budgets, for two years or more after Brexit, but without any direct say.

That’s better than the cliff edge transport is particularly vulnerable to, but raises fresh challenges for our sector.

In particular the lack of detail of what type of future relationship we would like makes planning harder,  potentially extending the period of uncertainty for a further two years or more, and means we are a rule taker not a rule maker for potentially four or more years. Maybe even beyond that if,  as she suggested, the final relationship will require us to continue to apply EU regulations for as long as is necessary. That could be a very long time indeed,  and surely requires Britain to seek to remain in at least some of the decision making bodies, including the EU Agencies.

But the biggest challenge is that the transitional period is not seen here in Brussels as an offer,  but as a request. It’s seen as Britain acting out of weakness not strength, not least because of the ongoing divisions in Government and the growing strength of the Opposition Labour Party.

So we have three major tasks ahead of us. First,  supporting the Government in persuading our EU partners that a transitional deal is good for them too. Many of them now just want us out,  and see Brexit as an unnecessary distraction. Events in Germany this weekend underline that.

Second, we need to ensure that during the potentially lengthy transition we continue to have a say over the regulations that will govern our industry.

And third and finally, we need to continue to press the Government to deliver a position paper on transport,   and provide greater clarity on issues such as customs and the Irish Question. To assist we are today publishing our position paper on how to deliver the best possible Brexit for transport.

With the fourth round of negotiations commencing today we will learn whether the reboot occurred. But either way we’ve got our work cut out. Click here for the agenda for the fourth round of Brexit negotiations.

1. UKTiE publishes position paper
UKTiE has published its position paper, outlining what we see as the core Brexit objectives for the transport industry. These include treating transport as a priority during the negotiations and preserving the rights of both UK and EU citizens. We also encourage working constructively with senior officials both within the UK and the EU, promoting the fullest possible exchange of information and know-how so that the negotiations are based on facts not politics. Most importantly we believe a transitional arrangement will be crucial and seek minimum disruption to the Single European Transport Area. Read our position paper here.

2. PM’s speech in Florence
Prime Minister May reported the fourth round of talks to this week to allow for her speech in Florence. The speech was meant to infuse the negotiations with new vitality and goodwill – did it work? While Mr Barnier and other senior officials welcomed the signal of goodwill, they strongly criticized her for not providing sufficient clarity on the three main divorce issues. Mr Barnier said “We look forward to the United Kingdom’s negotiators explaining the concrete implications of Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech”. All in all quite a cool reception by EU officials, very few of whom actually attended the speech in person. The main elements of the PM’s speech were clear concessions on a transition period and a commitment to pay into the EU budget until the end of the current cycle. Read BPA’s statement about the speech here. The Guardian also reports that shipping bosses say two years’ transition will not be enough.

3. Progress on “Brexit bill”?
The “Brexit bill” remains one of the biggest points of contention between the EU and the UK, and must be decided soon as it is part of the “first phase” of negotiations that must be dealt with before speaking about future arrangements. Could there be progress on this issue? Just before Theresa May was due to speak in Florence, Transport Minister Chris Grayling was asked if reports that Britain will offer a financial settlement were correct to which he replied: “We are a nation that meets its obligations. Of course we absolutely accept that Britain has obligations”. Although Theresa May did promise financial contributions during her speech Mr Barnier said it was far from certain that her offer to keep the EU’s current budget plan whole would be sufficient for the U.K. to meet all of its financial obligations as it leaves the EU.

4. Government refuses to reveal plans to avoid Operation Stack
Responding to a Freedom of Information request made by the KM Group (Kent Messenger Group) on what, if any, plans it has to improve Kent’s road network to help deal it deal with probable congestion post-Brexit, the DfT said the government’s negotiating position could be damaged “at this sensitive stage of the department’s planning for exiting the EU.” For the many businesses facing uncertainty due to Brexit, this stance did not inspire much confidence. Councillor Matthew Balfour, KCC cabinet member for highways, said he was “terribly nervous” that the preparations for Brexit were moving too slowly.

5. Verhofstadt: UK must find solution to Irish border
Guy Verhofstadt MEP, Brexit coordinator for the European Parliament was on the island of Ireland last week, visiting both sides of the border. Although he suggested that Northern Ireland could continue to be in the customs union and the single market after Brexit as a way to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, he made it very clear that it was up to the UK to provide a solution to this particular problem. “We all know this unique solution [to Northern Ireland] has to be proposed by the U.K. side, because the problem is a consequence of the decision of the U.K. to leave the European Union”

6. German elections this weekend
Due to an unexpectedly complicated result, the formation of the German government is not expected until Christmas. The big surprise was the Social Democratic Party walking away from the “Grand Alliance”. This means that Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU will have to form a coalition with the Liberals and the Greens. What impact will this have for Brexit and transport? UKTiE’s sources say that Germany’s stance on Brexit will remain much the same, but the ascension of the Greens to power could affect the transport industry as their agenda pushes heavily for climate efficient logistics, with one of their targets being to phase out diesel and petrol cars by 2030. Another significant result was that the AfD, the German far-right party, gained 12.6% of the vote, making it the third biggest party in Germany. 

7. UKTiE has also put together the latest timetable for Brexit. We will keep this up to date as the process develops: 

  • 29 March 2017 – A50 triggered
  • 5 April 2017 – European Parliament adopted Brexit guidelines
  • 22 May 2017 – Brexit negotiating directives approved by Council
  • 19 June 2017 – Negotiations formally began
  • 25 September 2017 – Fourth round of talks
  • 9 October 2017 – Fifth round of talks
  • TBC – UKTiE  & Norton Rose Fulbright Summit: Customs arrangements after Brexit.
  • 28 November 2017 – UKTiE Annual Forum
  • 30 September 2018 – Date by which EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, wants to conclude the terms of Britain’s exit from the Union.
  • 30 March 2019 – Britain formally exits the EU, following ratification of Brexit by all other member states and the European Parliament.
  • June 2019 – European Parliament election
Mark Watts
UK transport in Europe (UKTiE)
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