The European Commission insisted Friday (23 September) it was patiently waiting for the UK government to trigger Article 50, in the face of a spate of mixed messages coming out of London about the shape of a Brexit deal, or even its own objectives.
In New York on Thursday (22 September), the Foreign Secretary and lead Brexit campaigner, Boris Johnson, admitted for the first time, officially, that Britain would trigger Article 50 in the new year.
He also suggested Britain may not need the full two years of negotiation allowed under the Lisbon Treaty – suggesting he was in favour of a faster, so-called ‘hard Brexit’.
And he said that it is “absolute baloney” to suggest that Britain will be unable to retain access to the European single market unless it keeps free movement rules allowing all EU citizens to live and work in the UK.
That message was immediately slapped down by Downing Street, with a spokesman for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, stressing a decision on Article 50 was hers alone, and no timing had changed.
“The government’s position has not changed — we will not trigger Article 50 before the end of 2016,” a Downing Street spokesman said,
It was the latest of a series of blunders and mixed messages by the trio of pro-Leave ministers now in charge of Brexit negotiations – Johnson, plus Liam Fox as Minister for International Trade and David Davis as Minister for Leaving the EU.
Fox earlier this month said British businessmen were too “fat and lazy” to take up opportunities offered by Brexit, whilst Davis, in his first appearance in the House of Commons to set out the government’s negotiation position, appeared to suggest that staying in the single market was “very improbable”, as it would prevent Britain curbing the free movement of labour – a position far beyond Downing Street’s stated position.
Asked today by EurActiv.com if “the lack of any contingency planning for Brexit by the British government ahead of the referendum, plus all three Brexit ministers being reprimanded, or clarified, by Downing Street on policy positions, meant that the Commision was confident it had a competent interlocutor for next year’s negotiations”, a spokesman for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, “We have a team in place…and we await Article 50.”
The man who actually controls the purse strings in the UK, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, on the other hand, supported Remain, and has been telling British businesses, according to the Financial Times, that Brexit was “all very difficult at the moment”.
May has merely stuck to her gnomic expression that “Brexit means Brexit”, without elucidating on the many forms that could take.
Her press team in Downing Street have also repeatedly stated they will not provide a “running commentary” on the state of Brexit negotiations and planning.
Meanwhile, on Saturday (24 September), the opposition Labour party will announce the result of its leadership ballot, where incumbent Jeremy Corbyn was challenged by Owen Smith.
Smith – widely expected to lose heavily – ran on a campaign including a demand for a second referendum once the details of a Brexit deal are known.
Corbyn has said he will abide by the result of the June referendum.