29 Aug 2017

Jean-Claude Juncker’s frosty verdict

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker rubbished the UK papers on Brexit today. Published over the Summer break, they were proclaimed by Brexit Secretary David Davis yesterday in Brussels as proof of the UK’s hard work and good intent.

Michel Barnier at the press conference yesterday looked unimpressed by that and Mr Juncker has waded in today in support of Mr Barnier with typically strong language. Mr Juncker actually went further than the EU 27 authorised him to in his language. He said the talks would not move on to the future relationship with the UK until¬† issues of the Brexit bill, citizens’ rights and Northern Ireland were “resolved”. The European Council actually called for “sufficient progress” on the exit terms before talks could move on to the relationship.

Some one hundred UK officials are locked in the Berlaymont building negotiating issues like mutual recognition of qualifications for EU and UK citizens, benefits entitlements and the Northern Ireland/Ireland Common Travel Area. UK officials are also said to be challenging, line by line, the European Commission’s paper outlining what it sees as the principles that should govern calculation of the UK’s Brexit bill.

That could bring the UK close to acknowledging quite a sizable bill, even if it isn’t as big as the one the European Commission workings suggest. In the Guardian today, Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform suggests that the EU might settle for EU60b and that subscriptions for a transition lasting a few years could bring the two negotiating sides’ numbers much closer than might be thought.

But David Davis would want to know what his subscriptions were getting him. That requires clarification on what transition the UK is seeking. The EU only wants to offer an “off the shelf” status for the transition that would mean accepting, amongst other things, free movement of peoples. The Government can’t be sure it has Tory or national support for a deal that maintains many of the trappings and costs of membership for years into the future. The EU transition offer might well come with demands for future assurances on long-term convergence on tax, state aid, the environment etc.¬† The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is worried that no progress in October will trigger a wave of boardrooms to activate contingency plans to move their operations to the EU.

After the last round of talks in Brussels, Mr Barnier told EU officials that he didn’t think there was any realistic chance of moving to discussions about the future relationship in October, as the UK government wants. Some EU member state officials representing their nations in Brussels think that “no deal” is still a distinct possibility.

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