Article 50, Brexit, David Davis, GDPR, Irish border, Michel Barnier, Theresa May

Still a (very) Long and Winding #Brexit Road Ahead

This Briefing was written on 3rd Dec 2017

7EEC154E-1C26-4BA9-BD46-6E7E326308E2As we write this Briefing, early on Sunday Dec 3, it would appear that the EU and the UK are moving towards a position where the EU Council (heads of government) at its next meeting on December 14/15 will be able to declare “sufficient progress” in the Article 50 discussions to date to allow them to move on to the next stage, which will focus on the “framework” of the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

However, as one diplomat put it, until we see what has been agreed “on paper” rather than “in the papers” it is wise to withhold judgement. But it does seem that the logjam on citizens’ rights has been broken by the UK conceding an ongoing role for the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in upholding the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK after Brexit.

The UK has also agreed to meet all its outstanding financial obligations to the EU, estimated at around €50 billion net, while accepting that this money does not buy a future trade deal of any type, even if, for the moment, UK cabinet ministers are not exactly making that clear to MPs in the House of Commons.

What happens when the penny drops with Conservative MPs about the nature of the financial settlement and the ongoing role of the CJEU is anyone’s guess. For an honest assessment of the situation by an arch-Brexiter see here (behind a paywall). It is one thing to make promises across the negotiating table in Brussels. Delivering them as a minority government in Westminster is another, as this BBC report on the latest list of “red lines” drafter by Brexit hardliners makes clear.

The possibility of the reestablishment of a border in Ireland continues to be the most intractable of the three A50 issues. Effectively, the EU27 has made it clear that Ireland has a veto on “sufficient progress”, if it is not satisfied by commitments from the UK that there will be no border after Brexit. The president of the EU Council of Ministers, Donald Tusk, made that clear during a visit to Dublin on Friday, December 1 when he said:

“Let me say very clearly. If the UK offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will also be unacceptable for the EU.”

For the complexities of the “Irish Question” see this excellent analysis by RTE’s Tony Connolly: here

However, let us assume that an answer is found to the “Irish Question” and the EU Council agrees that sufficient progress has been made to allow the discussions to proceed, what happens next?

Before discussing this question it is critical to keep in mind that, as matters stand, having served the Article 50 notice, the UK will leave the EU at midnight, Brussels time, on the 29th March 2019. At one minute to midnight the UK will still be an EU member. At one second after midnight it will no longer be a member. In EU terminology, it will be a “third country”, albeit one with an exit/transition deal, which we come back to later in this Briefing.

Once the UK is out of the EU after midnight on March 29th, 2019, there is no easy way back. The UK would have to apply to re-join. While accession could be fast-tracked it would be on different terms and conditions than the UK currently enjoys. No budget rebate, for example. Membership of the euro anyone?

As things stand, the only way the UK can avoid quitting the EU on March 29, 2019, would be for the House of Commons to vote to withdraw the A50 notice. Were that to happen, then legal and political signals from Brussels and European capitals suggest that the EU would agree to the withdrawal, through it is unlikely that the matter would be straightforward. The EU would surely not accept a situation where the UK was permanently sitting on an A50 notice which it could reactivate at any time. There would need to be certainty and finality that Brexit was over.

But let’s be clear. There is no evidence that any move to withdraw the A50 exit notice would win majority support in the House of Commons at this time. For business, the working assumption has got to be that the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. Everything else flows from that.

To move on. We noted above that there appears to be a mistaken belief on the part of many Conservative MPs that the offered €50 billion is conditional on a trade deal acceptable to the UK. A second mistaken belief on the part of MPs of all parties is that if the EU Council agrees to allow the discussions to move to phase 2 then talks will immediately open on the substance of a trade deal. That is not what will happen.

Article 50 of the EU Treaty states:

In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.

The Article 50 talks will only focus on the “framework” for the future relationship between the EU and the UK, not on the substance of that relationship. Detailed negotiations on the substance of the relationship (trade deal) will only begin when the UK has become a third country, after March 29, 2019.

All that will be on the table during the A50 discussion is an outline of the type of trade deal that the EU will offer the UK in the future, after Brexit happens. As of today, the best that the UK can hope for is a trade deal along the lines that the EU has signed with Canada, which focuses mainly on trade in goods, with relatively little to say about services, which constitute about 80% of UK economic activity.

But the UK hopes for more than “Canada” and every day UK newspapers are full of statements and reports from UK trade groups arguing for a “special” deal for their sector which would leave things more or less as they are today, as if that sector continued to be still in the single market and the customs union.

This is not going to happen.

How do we know? Because the EU has said so. Everything the EU has said during the Brexit process so far has happened, even when UK ministers waved away such statements as “negotiating posturing”. As the Financial Times noted (here) developments to date have been nothing more than a series of “UK concessions” marking a “slow surrender to Brexit reality.”

As Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform notes, UK negotiators:

…hope that the member-states most dependent on UK trade will push the Commission to offer the British a better deal than the Canadians, that is to say one with more on services. So far the EU shows few signs of softening. But if it did ever grant the UK anything close to single market membership in specific areas, it would demand cash payments, compliance with EU rules and ECJ rulings, and perhaps a liberal UK regime on migration. If all went smoothly, a generous offer from the UK on security and defence co-operation could encourage the EU to accept Canada Plus. (here).

Further, when it comes to going beyond “Canada” the EU will be mindful that any concessions it makes to the UK could be claimed by other countries, if such concessions were seen to breach WTO rules. Though, to be honest, the intricacies of international trade policies are beyond our competency and are fully understood only by the trade Illuminati.

So, the ”framework” that the EU will put on the table in 2018, during phase 2 of the A50 talks, will be a framework for a trade deal that comes nowhere near the trading arrangements on manufactured goods, agricultural products, fisheries and, most importantly, services that the UK has as a member of the EU.

The EU is also likely to offer the UK a strictly, time-limited transition deal, of probably about two years, during which the UK will be a de facto if not de jure member of the EU, with the UK accepting during the transition the EU’s four freedom of movement principles, of people, goods, services and capital, as well as being subject to the jurisdiction of the CJEU.

During the transition, additional payments, over and above the €50 billion, will fall due. During the transition nothing will change and trade in goods and services, including financial services, between the EU and the UK will continue as of today. However, the UK will no longer be able to nominate an EU Commissioner, elect members of the European Parliament, or have a judge on the European Court.

During the transition discussions will open on the substance of the future trade agreement between the EU and the UK. We use the word “discussions” rather than negotiations because, the brutal truth be told, these talks will not be negotiations as most of the readers of this briefing, seasoned labour relations practitioners, understand the meaning of that word. It will be damage limitation on the part of the UK because the UK has initiated a process which it knows will leave it worse off than it is today. No one “negotiates” to make themselves poorer. There may be times when you are forced into such a situation, but Brexit is the first known example of the losing party initiating the process.

Just how much can be achieved in two years is also open to question, conjuring up the possibility of a mutual decision by the parties to extend the transition period. “Strictly time-limited” may turn out to be a somewhat elastic concept, capable of being stretched and stretched.

It is also worth keeping in mind that a transition period does not make Brexit “harder” or “softer”. It just postpones it for a few years, however long those years turn out to be.

Whatever deals emerges from these subsequent trade talks which, to repeat, will only take place after the UK ceases to be a member of the EU in March 2019, will, more than likely, have to be ratified by national parliaments. That could well be a tough ask, especially if there is any suggestion that the UK would be free in the future to undercut EU social, environmental and other standards.

A country like Ireland may even consider that the deal would have to be ratified by referendum, to establish the “will of the people”. Funny thing this ¬“will of the people” stuff. Apparently it is not just limited to the UK and other people in other countries might have other “wills”.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michael Barnier, has said that the A50 negotiations must conclude by around October 2018, to allow time for national governments to consider the proposed agreement and for ratification by the EU Parliament. So, as of October 2018, the UK House of Commons will know what is on offer:

1. The UK must meet all its existing financial obligations to the EU, approximately €50 billion net.
2. The UK will be offered a transition deal or around 2 years during which nothing much changes.
3. The UK will be required to make additional payments to the EU over and above the €50 billion during the transition.
4. All that will be on offer after the transition will be a Canada style deal on terms and conditions considerably inferior to those offered by EU membership, or even by membership of the single market and the customs union.
5. Whatever trade deal is eventually negotiated could be subject to ratification by national parliaments in all EU27 member states. In effect handing 27 vetoes to 27 national parliaments.

Confronted with this reality, in all its nakedness and stripped of political spin, will the House of Commons vote for it? The UK’s Secretary of State for Brexit has told the Commons that if MPs vote down any deal then the UK will simply leave the EU without a deal. But then Davis also told the Commons that any deal would only be done at a minute to midnight on March 29, 2019, leaving no time for a meaningful vote or any time to reconsider the Article 50 exit notice.

If the House of Commons knows what is on offer six months before March 2019 then there is a time for a rethink. Could there be a rethink? From now to October 2018 is a very long time in politics.

A lot could happen.

For example, the idea that there are trade deals aplenty to be done with other countries to compensate for the loss of EU trade, could take a knock, especially if political uncertainty in the US puts a UK/US deal on hold. A collapse of the existing NAFTA deal would underscore how difficult trade talks with the Trump administration can be.

There is a long and winding road ahead, making it difficult to see the final destination. Developments over the next two weeks will be critical.

Brexit, Data Protection, Data transfers, GDPR, Theresa May

Another Brick in a #Data Wall? #Brexit #EUDataP

This article was written on Nov 4th, 2017

GDPR readyUnder the BEERG law of unintended consequences; the unintended outworking of an action or event is often far more significant or impactful than the intended one. And so, while the UK media obsessed on sex scandals and a cabinet resignation, the Brexit process crawled along with the announcement of another round of EU/UK talks next week and a vote in parliament forcing the government to publish 58 sectoral studies on the economic impact of Brexit.

Meanwhile, the most important Brexit consequence of the week may turn out to be an obscure clause in the Second Schedule of the Data Protection Bill, (lines 39 – 45 on page 125) which is currently being examined line-by-line in the House of Lords.

In an article in politics.co.uk last Friday, November 3, Martha Spurrier director of Liberty, an organisation which campaigns for civil liberties and human rights in the UK, drew attention to a little noticed provision in the Bill, Schedule 2, Part 1, Section 4.1 – Immigration, which reads:

The listed GDPR provisions do not apply to personal data processed for any of the following purposes—
    (a) the maintenance of effective immigration control, or
    (b) the investigation or detection of activities that would undermine the maintenance          of effective immigration control,
to the extent that the application of those provisions would be likely to prejudice any of the matters mentioned in paragraphs (a) and (b).

While, as Spurrier notes, the intent of the Bill is as the government puts to “empower people to take control of their data” she says that “it will strip millions of their rights.”
As Spurrier writes, contrary to the stated intentions of the legislation, the real impact of Schedule 2.4 means that:

…any government agency processing data for immigration purposes will be free of those pesky data protection obligations we’ve developed through successive Acts of parliament – and signed up to through the EU’s General Data Protection

In practice, the exemption will create a two-tier data rights regime. When an agency relies on the exemption, individuals will lose their right to know what information is held about them, who is processing it and why.

They will not be able to correct or erase information held about them – which doesn’t bode well considering how much of the data held on us is out of date or just plain wrong.

She goes on to note that the lack of a definition of effective immigration control or activities that would interfere with it “makes it practically impossible to draw up a list of all those who could be caught up”. “The exemption could also be used to facilitate the sharing of personal data between public services and the Home Office if it’s decided checking everyone’s entitlement to access healthcare, education or social housing is necessary for effective immigration control.”

She concludes that the idea “that personal data collected for one purpose can’t be used for another without the individual’s informed consent is the cardinal principle of data protection. This exemption makes a mockery of it and sets a damaging precedent for the privacy rights of all of us.”

What has this got to do with Brexit?

Simply, it is one more potential barrier, and a significant one at that, to the free flow of personal data from the EU to the UK after Brexit.

That public authorities could have such unfettered rights to citizens’ personal data without citizens been aware of what data is being held, could make it extremely difficult for the European Commission to issue an “adequacy decision” on the UK’s data protection regime. Such a decision is vital if personal data is to flow freely from the EU to the UK, without individual businesses having to go through complex procedures to put in place binding corporate rules or avail of standard contractual clauses which are, in any event, been called into question by privacy campaigners as failing to offer sufficient protect for data transferred to the US.

But “data adequacy decisions” are not easy come by and can take years. Only a handful have ever been issued. See here for details.

The EU Parliament is also likely to have a good deal to say on the matter. And what it has to say will not be kind to the UK.

The data economy in the EU was estimated to be worth €272 billion in 2015, or around 2% of the EU-28 GDP. And that figure is expected to rise to €643 billion by 2020, according to the UK’s Department for Exiting the European Union. 43% of EU tech companies are based in the UK and 75% of the UK’s data transfers are with the EU Member States. Over 70 per cent of the UK’s trade in services is supported by personal data flows as the government noted in a position paper last August: “Data flows between the UK and the EU are crucial for our shared economic prosperity and for wider cooperation, including on law enforcement.”

The UK government believe that it is taking the necessary steps to ensure it is aligned with the requirements of EU regulations and to comply with European legislation, post-Brexit.

Further, to consolidate the relationship, it is proposing “a UK-EU model for exchanging and protecting personal data, […]providing sufficient stability for businesses, public authorities and individuals.” This would ‘build on the existing adequacy model’, and would see continued engagement of the UK Information Commissioner’s Office with other EU regulators. In other words, it wants the UK’s data commissioner to still have a seat at the table.

However, as we have previously noted in these BEERG Brexit Briefings, there is a major obstacle in the way of the EU issuing a “data adequacy decision” as regards the UK, post-Brexit. The Investigatory Powers Act, which came into force at the end of last year, allows the U.K. government to monitor large batches of data, collect people’s browsing records and hack citizens’ phones and computers for security purposes.

The Act was initiated by Prime Minister Theresa May when she was still at the Home Office. Critics, such as the German Green MEP, Jan Philipp Albrecht, have suggested that the Act gives the UK security services more far-reaching powers that the US counterparts. It was concerns over the extent of the access by the US security services to the personal data of EU citizens which had been transferred to the US that led to the collapse of the old Safe Harbour Agreement, and its replacement by the Privacy Shield arrangement.

EU law provides for exemptions from general data protection principles in matters of:
•  national security and defence;
•  the prevention, investigation, detection and prosecution of criminal offences;
•  the protection of data subjects and the rights and freedom of others.

But these exemptions only apply to EU and EEA member states. They do not apply to “third countries”, EU terminology for countries that are completely outside the EU/EEA framework. After Brexit, as it has been defined by the UK government, the UK will be a such a “third country”, and so the security exemption will no longer apply. The problems created by the Investigatory Powers Act is securing an “adequacy decision” from the EU will be further exacerbated by Schedule 2.4, as discussed above.

There will be many in the UK who will argue that, even in the absence of an overarching Brexit agreement, the EU will cut “mini-deals” with the UK, including one on data flows. But then again, maybe not. As Sir Ivor Richards said in his comment to a House of Commons committee a week back:

What is going to happen? In the absence of a deal, have the French, Belgians or Dutch any incentive to sort that problem (customs blockages), or do they have an incentive to keep us stewing? In the area of data protection, do they have an incentive ultimately to cobble together some agreement at the last minute in order to keep data flows, or do they have an incentive to maximise the flow of UK business that has to shift to the continent?

The Investigatory Powers Act is already on the statute books. Schedule 2.4 of the Data Protection Bill is not.

Spurrier makes her own arguments as to why the provision should be opposed.

We simply seek to draw attention to the fact that it places another enormous brick in the wall as regards future data flows between the EU and the UK when Brexit bites.