Monsieur Non and Scourge of the City face hard task over Brexit

Appointment of David Davis and Michel Barnier flag difficulty of EU/UK talks


Once Britain voted to leave the European Union, there appeared to be two ways it could happen. The first was quickly and reasonably amicably, with an early decision – either during the exit talks or shortly after – on some deal that would have allowed the country to leave but to remain part of the single market. The second was a long, drawn-out and contentious period of talks, with an uncertain outcome.

With no quick overall deal looking likely, the talks will now, when they finally get under way, get diverted by a whole host of national and sectoral interests, first in the exit negotiations and then in the talking to follow on Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU. They will go on and on and it won’t be pretty.

Monsieur Non

So far, neither side appears minded to take a step back. Only time will tell how much of this is game-playing. But when new UK prime minister Theresa May appointed Eurosceptic David Davis – known in his time as Europe minister as “Monsieur Non” – it did not signal a “quickie divorce” but rather a lengthy battle. And now Europe has responded.

On Thursday, former French commissioner Michel Barnier was appointed with the less than pithy title of “chief negotiator in charge of leading the commission taskforce for the preparation and conduct of the negotiations with the United Kingdom. ”

Only the European Commission could come up with a title such as that. But more seriously, this is a message to the UK. Barnier, in his role as internal markets commissioner, clashed repeatedly with the country, particularly in relation to the financial sector and the City of London, when he imposed a host of new rules and regulations in the wake of the financial crash.The Financial Times referred this week to him having been dubbed the “Scourge of the City” and mentioned his “interventionist instincts and Gaullist style “ as making him the nemesis of the UK treasury.

One anonymous banker was quoted as saying: “It’s incredibly provocative. This is Juncker’s revenge on Britain.” There was wide use of the phrase “no friend of Britain” across the British media. There is even an old tale about how Barnier allegedly resents Britain because he lost his job as a French foreign minister in 2005 after the French government lost a referendum on an EU constitutional change. The story was that the French government was pushed into having it because Tony Blair’s government promised it would have one, even though it eventually did not.

The Daily Telegraph once described Barnier as “the most dangerous man in Europe”. His moves on financial regulation were seen as a direct attempt to disadvantage the City, as was his move to champion the financial transactions tax and clamp down on bankers’ bonuses. In London, they were interpreted as a direct French-inspired attack on the City, and there are legendary tales of spats between Barnier and senior treasury and Bank of England figures.

May’s endgame

So it doesn’t look as if any side is willing to take the conciliatory route, though of course you can pick your theory about what May’s endgame is, if in fact she has one. For the moment it looks like we are heading into a potentially fractious negotiation on Britain’s exit terms, with little sign that any progress will be made on its future relationship with the EU until after this is over.

There is a strong economic argument not to do it this way – for both sides. The risk is of increasing and prolonging uncertainty, with a cost in terms of the impact on consumer and business confidence. The pro-Brexit side talks of coming through a period of difficulty into a brave new world. The trouble is that recessions or periods of low growth cost jobs and directly hit people’s lives. Policy is meant to be about doing the opposite. But politics so far is dictating that both sides must square up for battle.

This week’s British GDP figures for the second quarter were reasonably upbeat, showing a 0.6 per cent quarterly rate of expansion. But don’t be fooled. Forward-looking indicators are bleaker. Expectations of growth from industry are on the slide. Lloyds has announced that it will cut 3,000 jobs in the UK. A whole range of investment banks and funds are either moving or threatening to move out of London.

Some of this damage could be headed off by a quick deal and indications that Britain would remain in the single market. But with Britain insisting on restrictions on freedom of movement, and the EU firm that this is a non-runner for a single-market member, there is simply no easy way through this one.

Barnier and Davis last served together as ministers for Europe on a think tank in the 1990s to look at the EU’s future. Predictably, it went nowhere. This time their negotiations will be much more pointed. Hard decisions will have to be made by Mr No and Monsieur Non.

Footnotes . . .

A forthcoming case in Castlebar District Court is now the subject of high-level conference calls between the international legal hot spots of Washington, Berlin and Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo.

The discussions relate to a case in which Volkswagen AG, the multibillion-euro behemoth, is facing off against Eithne Higgins, a nurse living in Boyle, Co Roscommon, and the owner of a 2013 Skoda Superb.

The case centres on compensation for owners after the car giant admitted last September – after years of denials – that it fitted cheat devices to more than 11 million diesel cars designed to deceive official emissions tests. The devices were fitted to models across its Volkswagen, Audi, Seat and Skoda ranges.

It has all the makings of a David v Goliath battle and the international press corps from Germany and the US is travelling to Castlebar for the first showdown on September 6th.

The big draw? Amid the legal battles that include a $15 billion US settlement, ongoing criminal investigations in several states and VW’s own internal investigations, O’Dwyer Solicitors of Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, was granted the first court order for discovery by Judge Mary Devins in Castlebar District Court last month.

The legal eagles and the media are intrigued as to how the car giant responds to the order directing it to provide technical and expert information in relation to the emissions scandal. While VW has undoubtedly some hefty legal weight at its disposal, solicitor Evan O’Dwyer has called in some big guns of his own. He has struck a deal with Hausfeld, a law firm which also represented VW owners in the US, to share information and co-ordinate their respective efforts on behalf of clients. Other international heavyweights seem set to join Team Higgins.

While the VW boardroom execs may be unacquainted as yet with the case history of Ballyhaunis firm O’Dwyer Solicitors, VW will take note of the arrival of Hausfeld to the legal pitch. The Berlin-based law firm has already worked on cases in the US involving the emissions scandal. Its chairman was appointed to serve on the plaintiffs’ steering committee in the recent US class action of Volkswagen Group car owners. It will no doubt bring that expertise to bear on the documents and affidavits presented to the court by the car giant.

The 2016 Olympic Games kick off in Rio next week and the US Olympic committee is in a tizzy. Not because of the Zika virus, though. It’s up in arms over tweets.

Yes, tweets.

The committee has been issuing autocratic letters threatening to sue anyone who isn’t an official sponsor from tweeting about the games. It says companies which are not sponsors or media organisations are forbidden from sharing or reposting anything from the official Olympics account.

The committee said commercial entities may not post about the trials or games on their corporate social-media accounts. This restriction includes the use of USOC’s trademarks in hashtags such as #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA.

Seems like to committee has forgotten the Olympic creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.”

Let the games begin!

Members of Cricket Ireland must have been bowled over by its latest set of accounts. They show that the Irish Cricket Union Ltd produced its best figures yet, with a surplus of €306,227 in 2015.

That compared with €52,111 the previous year, and was due in large part to the visit of England to Malahide for a one-day international, which was cut short by inclement weather.

Cricket Ireland netted match income of €701,341 from the England game versus expenses of €579,076 – a tidy profit of €122,265.

Compare that with its fixture with Scotland, which generated income of just €2,112 compared with expenses of €37,904.

Elsewhere, Cricket Ireland received just under €2.9 million from its world governing body, the ICC. It also received grants from bodies north and south of the Border of €922,407, and broadcasting income of €362,703.

Its participation numbers rose to 48,500, it wrote a new strategic plan to begin in 2016, and it became Ireland’s second-biggest sport on social media, no less. #Howzatforprogress

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