31 Aug 2017

Latest Brexit talks reach a brittle conclusion

Some who’ve watched Michel Barnier over the years say they’ve never seen the old smoothy quite so brittle. Questioned in today’s press conference, Mr Barnier denied he was “angry” but admitted to “impatience”.

From left, British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis, and EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier

That press conference in Brussels following the third round of Brexit talks was quite snippy. Mr Barnier mocked the UK’s hopes of Single Market conditions continuing even after the transition period as “nostalgia.” David Davis snapped that he wasn’t nostalgic but pro-free market.

The European Commission was deeply unhappy with the UK negotiating team’s presentation this week challenging the legal basis for the Brexit bill. It effectively suggested that the vast bulk of the bill is without legal substance. That comes after quite a few pro-Brexit ministers have been acknowledging that there is a bill to pay. Michel Barnier said it raised issues of “trust.” I wonder what it’ll do to his blood pressure when he sees the report expected soon from pro-Brexit Tory MPs which says the EU actually owes the UK money on the day we leave. Will the UK soften that position over time? It would be a massive climbdown. If it is hoping to talk money only when we are in phase 2 of the talks, an awful lot hinges on getting there quite soon.

Behind closed doors, British officials are already regularly dragging the future relationship into the talks even though the European Commission says that is forbidden. One official said it was “almost like a game” – phase 2 bingo?

Michel Barnier pretty much rubbished British hopes of moving on to the second phase of talks in October but the Treasury is still hoping that can happen. Philip Hammond has told ministerial colleagues that business needs reassurance soon about the shape of Brexit and the transition period to head off boardroom decisions that could harm the British economy.

Central to that hope is a speech expected this month from Theresa May. It is intended to move the process forward and sources say that must mean putting some flesh on what the UK wants a transition phase to look like: a single market and customs union arrangement as close as possible to the current one for the transition period of 2 to 3 years.

That though would require pretty minimal changes to the freedom of movement arrangements that currently come with full membership of the EU and the Single Market. And that, a government source said, is something Theresa May worries about. “She just can’t bring herself to do it,” one source said. Another said: “She’s got to swallow it.”

The limited change to freedom of movement was floated in June, a new requirement for EU citizens, potentially for the duration of the transition period, to register their intention to stay in the UK. That’s no more than some EU countries already do (here are the German rules)┬áso can’t really be objected to.

The UK Government and European Commission have jointly published an assessment of progress so far, a half empty or half full glass depending on which side you’re viewing it from.


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