Summer is over — and Brexit is back!
The 3rd round of Brexit negotiations kicked off this week in Brussels and things are very much back to normal.
The EU chief negotiator is being stubborn, David Davis is trying to appear in control and Jean-Claude Juncker has waded in unannounced. All the while a stream of UK media have jumped to defend the EU and attack their government.
It all started on Monday at a joint press launch held with the UK’s Brexit minister David Davis and the EU’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier.
Davis struck an upbeat tone:
“We’ve had a busy few weeks since the last round of talks. The UK government has published a large number of papers covering important issues relating to our withdrawal and our vision for a deep and special partnership that we want with the European Union in the future.
“They are the products of hard work and detailed thinking that’s been going on behind the scenes, not just in the last few weeks but for the last twelve months and should form the basis of what I hope will be a constructive week of talks between the European Commission and the United Kingdom.
“For the United Kingdom, the week ahead is about driving forward the technical discussions across all the issues. We want to lock in the points where we agree, unpick the areas where we disagree, and make further progress on the whole range of issues.
“But in order to do that will require flexibility and imagination from both sides — something i think the Council asked for on some subjects.”
Meanwhile, Michel Barnier didn’t seem impressed with the progress being made:
“We need UK positions on all separation issues. This is necessary to make sufficient progress. We must start negotiating seriously.
“We need UK papers that are clear in order to have constructive negotiations and the sooner we remove the ambiguity, the sooner we will be in a position to discuss the future relationship and the transitional period.”
Then, today, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker came sloping in, saying that negotiations about a future EU-UK trading relationship could only start once divorce issues had been resolved.
It’s the line the EU has meticulously stuck to since it unilaterally imposed a two-stage process to Brexit following the UK’s triggering of Article 50 earlier this year.
Speaking at theconference of EU Ambassadors in Brussels, Juncker said:
“I would like to be clear that I did read with the requisite attention all the papers produced by Her Majesty’s government and none of those is actually satisfactory.
“So there’s still an enormous amount of issues which remain to be settled. Not just on the border problems regarding Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is a very serious problem in respect of which we’ve had no definitive response, but we also have the status of European citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living on the continent.
“We need to be crystal clear that we will commence no negotiations on the new economic and trade relationship between the UK and the EU before all these questions are resolved… that is the divorce between the EU and the UK. We cannot mix these issues up,”
But why aren’t the two sides able to see eye-to-eye?
Well the discord would seem to stem from the moment the EU chose to arbitrarily determine that certain issues surrounding Brexit should be left off the negotiating table until a ‘first phase’ was complete. By separating Brexit into two phases, Brussels scored a quick early victory and managed to rig the game a little in its favour.
Britain is at its most intimidating and most focussed when talking about trade. In 2016, UK exports to the EU stood at £240 billion. According to the ONS, EU exports to the UK stood at £310 billion in 2016.
How open those trade routes remain will be the true test of whether Brexit has been a success or not.
The EU’s decision to make the EU-UK future trade relationship a matter for the ‘second phase’ of negotiations has angered many in Whitehall and is why the UK is so keen for the EU exercise a certain level of ‘flexibility and imagination’.
The UK would like nothing more than to talk about the Irish border issues, but would much rather include it in a broader discussion about its access to the entire European market.
It would be happy to consider the EU’s divorce bill in detail, as long as it was also able to put on the table the British insatiable appetite for German automobiles, French wine, Italian shoes and Spanish fruit.
And this is the impasse we now find ourselves at.
The EU side accusing the UK of ambiguity and blaming it for holding up the process. The UK side, unhappy at the rules laid down at the outset, is hilariously calling for ‘flexibility and imagination’ from Brussels — two traits that have NEVER been used to describe the EU and its myriad of institutional actors.
With summer slowly coming to a end, and with politicians, diplomats and journalists returning to their crammed inboxes, their batteries recharged, we should be in for an enthralling autumn.