15 Dec 2017

A delicate diplomatic dance: Brexit talks move on to second-stage

Political Editor

As the European Council ended, there was snippy language from some EU27 leaders about the need for the UK Government to get on with making its mind up about where it wants to go with the future relationship with the EU post-Brexit.

But there was also guidance that the EU is ready to start exploratory or scoping contacts with the UK to find areas of agreement on trade before it drafts its own Negotiating Guidelines on the Future Relationship ready for the next EU Council in late March 2018. This will be a delicate diplomatic dance, each side not wanting to reveal too much while testing ideas and trying to work out the other sides’ thinking.

The European Council President Donald Tusk sounded like a man who was pretty concerned about divisions emerging amongst the EU27 in Phase 2 of the Brexit process.

The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, said the British government really needed to make up its mind what it wanted. But at the same time he rattled off possible templates for the post Brexit EU/UK relationship he mentioned not just Norway and Canada – the binary choice that public statements suggest is all that is on offer – but also speculated about Britain wanting a “bespoke” or “Swiss model.”

Angela Merkel, in her joint press conference with President Macron, stuck much more to the standard line and said the onus was on Britain to get on with it and form its own approach.

That starts with the Brexit Cabinet Committee meeting on Monday afternoon and then the full Cabinet on Tuesday. Some sources say this will be a clearing of the throat session in which all attendees will be invited to share their preferred approach. Even if that is the plan, it wouldn’t take much to steer the meeting off course.

The government must also work out how it wants to play the transition rules laid out in the EU27 Guidelines published today. The document spells out very starkly that a transition period for the UK after Brexit will see it move to something normally only seen in colonies. The UK will pay in, take all rules (including newly minted ones) and get no say in what is going on.

Mrs May will have to be careful if she tries to negotiate at the edges of that offer that she really can get some wins rather than just draw attention to something perhaps better kept off the screens and front pages. As it stands, the UK will still be operating freedom of movement, living under the ECJ jurisdiction and much else besides five years after the Brexit vote.

The session in which the EU27 discussed Brexit this morning was very brief. Though it wasn’t as brief as the “couple of minutes” in which Theresa May last night addressed the EU27. There was a smattering of applause from some after she spoke but accounts vary as to whether leaders thought they were clapping Mrs May, the efforts of their own negotiators or simply themselves.