Tory divisions loom as EU sets out draft terms for talks

by John Wyles | 31.03.2017

Although there is virtually nothing surprising in the draft negotiating guidelines sent to member states  by the European Council, they will come as a shock to publics across much of the United Kingdom.

Reasoned, logical and based on longstanding EU principles, they underline the weakness of Britain’s negotiating position and shatter Theresa May’s ambition to unite the country and the Conservative Party behind her. Wherever you look, the document overflows with pressure points loaded with very difficult choices for the government.

On close examination, even an apparent olive branch allowing the start of trade talks before detailed divorce arrangements are settled turns out to be little more than a twig.  The guidelines say these talks can begin in a second phase providing “sufficient progress” has been made on settling the UK’s financial obligations and on safeguarding the rights of EU and UK citizens residing in their respective territories. Previously, Angela Merkel and others had suggested that trade was off the agenda until divorce details had been fully settled.

But it will be the EU that determines whether progress has been sufficient and there can be no doubt that it will want certainty that the UK will commit to so-called “exit payments” unofficially estimated at €60 billion.  Securing the rights of UK and EU residents will be equally important.

Choleric Brexiters will cry “blackmail” and some will tell May she should abandon the talks.  But payments are not the issue that will make even more of them want to walk.  Much more incendiary is the guidelines’ requirement that any post-Brexit transition period towards a free trade deal that prolongs the Union’s  “acquis” must be subject to the EU’s “regulatory, budgetary, supervisory and enforcement instruments and structures.”

In other words, EU membership would end on March 29 2019 but during May’s “phased process of implementation” the British could not take back full sovereignty and legal powers on that date. Nor, importantly, will the British be able to take back control of their borders. Free movement of people would continue to apply for the length of the transition period, which is, as yet, unspecified.

If these guidelines are endorsed and amplified at the heads of government summit at the end of this month, as they will be, the EU may well, in effect, revive the referendum campaign in the UK.

Advanced eurosceptics will insist that the British people did not vote to “restore our sovereignty, but not just yet.”  They will campaign for trading under WTO rules and for beating bushes around the world for quick bilateral trade deals. This will deepen divisions in an already divided country as well as fuelling political, economic and business uncertainties.

Moreover, the EU’s list of issues to be tackled by the Article 50 negotiations raises doubts as to whether the agenda can be completed within the 18 months effectively available, even with maximum political will.

These include defining a dispute settlement mechanism, agreeing processes for cases that will still be at the European Court of Justice on exit day, coordinating approaches to third countries and international organizations, participation in EU funded programmes,  facilitating the transfer of EU agencies based in Britain and finding “imaginative solutions” to avoid bringing back a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

The guidelines state that the EU wants to preserve the UK as a “close partner” in the future. But they clearly say the EU will prepare for a possible failure of the negotiations. Reality is closing in and June 23 2016 did not end more than 40 years of controversy over EU membership. These guidelines will simply move it into a different phase.

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    This article was corrected shortly after publication to acknowledge that the draft guidelines were not officially published by the European Council but rather sent to EU27 governments. The full text of the draft guidelines have been printed by media outlets.

    Edited by Stewart Fleming

    6 Responses to “Tory divisions loom as EU sets out draft terms for talks”

    • What is the panic? Anyone with a brain in gear and the eyes open could see this coming, especially when a piglet like Boris Johnson was put in place. Nothing else was possible after his juicy have cake and eat it comments. What is the driving force of the cabinet serving the requirements of the beer-swilling caste demanding a hard Brexit so slavishly? That is the most important question now as it would explain why the government favored silly sound bites and posturing instead of managing an as much as possible painless divorce. Really, the country had this coming almost from the moment the 52 percent had their joy.