UK Brexit minister David Davis has taken part in his first official meetings on the continent, to disappointing reviews, while the UK has decided to investigate whether UKIP’s funding of its Brexit campaign breached any laws.
After meeting with the European Commission’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, yesterday (21 November), Davis travelled to Strasbourg to meet with the Frenchman’s European Parliament counterpart, ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt.
Davis indicated during the meeting that the UK is on track to notify the EU of its intention to leave by March, as well as sharing with Verhofstadt how it is currently preparing.
The British government is preparing legislation to trigger the procedure to leave the EU, Sky News reported today (7 November), despite Prime Minister Theresa May saying she is confident of overturning a court decision that may delay Brexit.
The former Belgian prime minister stressed that the meeting was not a negotiation, as European Union officials have been at pains to insist that there will be no talks before the UK triggers Article 50, and reiterated his desire for Brexit to have been completed before the start of the new legislative cycle in 2019.
Verhofstadt said it would be “very strange” if the UK went through the process of selecting European representation, only to then leave the bloc. He added that it is important for the UK and EU to have a close relationship; he also used the opportunity to call for more EU reform, so that the Union is “fit to do its tasks and develop policies for the next decades”.
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Finally, he toed the EU’s line, insisting that the four freedoms of movement, goods, services, capital and people are non-negotiable, adding that “it’s impossible to find solutions where we destroy them”.
After the “fun and useful” meeting, Davis said that “we can get an outcome here which will be in the interest of the European Union and in the interest of Britain and will meet the requirements of the referendum”. The UK MP called Verhofstadt “a very nice man” and said that they “get on very well”.
The ALDE leader, who was infamously blocked from becoming Commission president by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2004, also outlined the timeline for notification, negotiation and ratification, calling the upcoming period “very intense”.
Verhofstadt also explained that his team had given “23 Commissioners a lot of homework; we have given them five key questions they have to answer in a document,”as well as an impact assessment of Brexit on a number of different issues.
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Davis also met with EPP chair Manfred Weber, who did not sugar-coat the fact that “today in my talks with Mr. Davis I didn’t hear anything new”. The German politician also added that Davis had failed to enlighten him about “what Brexit really means”.
Weber, like Verhofstadt, said that the four freedoms were also non-negotiable. After the meeting, the EPP chairman said that Davis’ fellow Brexiteer, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, had made “a purely arrogant provocation” when the former London mayor said that the UK would do what it could to help Turkey join the EU, during a visit to Ankara.
Davis was also scheduled to rendezvous with S&D group leader Gianni Pittella, but cancelled the meeting. Pittella, when asked about the no-show, said that they were “willing” to meet and were not sure why Davis had cancelled.
UKIP under the microscope
Meanwhile, Britain’s Electoral Commission opened an investigation into whether the UK Independence Party used EU money for its Brexit campaign in breach of party funding rules.
The probe follows a European Parliament audit yesterday that said UKIP will have to renounce hundreds of thousands of euros of EU funding after misspending part of the grants on campaigning in Britain.
The audit found that a number of invoices from the European political party Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe (ADDE), to which UKIP belongs, “were not in line with the rules governing grants to parties and foundations”.
The auditors added that UKIP would “not receive the remaining 20% of the grant (€248,345) allocated for 2015 and will need to reimburse a sum of €172,654 from the 80% of the grant which was advanced to the party,” it said.
The breaches related to nine opinion polls held in Britain ahead of the 2015 general election, as well as ahead of the referendum in June.
While Britain’s vote to leave the EU was a triumph for UKIP and its co-founder Nigel Farage, who stepped down from the leadership following the referendum, the party has since struggled to capitalise on the vote and has been beset with infighting.
Farage seems to be crafting his own way out of the chaos though. Last week, he was photographed with Donald Trump in New York, becoming the first European leader to meet the president-elect. Trump also suggested that “many people” would like to see Farage as the UK’s ambassador to the United States.