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Analysis

Brexit talks already getting lost in the weeds

by Luke Lythgoe | 29.06.2017

Little over a week since the Brexit talks officially began, issues once glibly written off by Eurosceptics as straightforward are proving far more complex. What’s more, these just concern the terms of our withdrawal. Negotiators haven’t even begun looking at the future trade deal Theresa May insists can be wrapped up in two years.

Agreement on the rights of EU and UK expats was supposed to be easy. For many months now, the government has stressed that it wants an early resolution of the issue, based on reciprocal arrangements.

Both sides have now outlined their offers. The problem is, they’re at odds on some key details. The EU position demands “full jurisdiction” of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to enforce citizens’ rights under any withdrawal agreement. This is a red line for Brexiters, and so Theresa May’s “fair and serious” offer instead offers EU citizens “settled status” under the UK’s Immigration Act.

After Brexit, the UK offer says, family members joining EU nationals in the UK will have to follow the “same rules as those [non-EU nationals] joining British citizens” now – which includes meeting an £18,600 annual income requirement. Brussels is also displeased with the UK’s plan to make children apply for settled status and with talk of introducing mandatory biometric identity cards to prove the settled status of the 3 million EU nationals currently in the UK.

There is a fundamental problem here: the EU’s position would give EU citizens more rights than UK citizens, protected by a foreign court; by contrast, the government’s offer of settled status and ID cards turns EU nationals into second-class citizens, worried that their host country could turn against them at any time. The European Commission’s chief negotiator has called for “more ambition, clarity and guarantees” from the UK. Any final deal seems a long way off.

Meanwhile, the far more contentious issue of Britain’s “divorce” payment has intensified with an EU paper warning Brexit will blow a hole in the EU’s budget. UK withdrawal meant “the loss of an important partner and contributor” at a time when challenges to the EU and pressure on national budgets was increasing, the paper noted. Unpopular new measures will be needed to plug the gap, with more taxes to Brussels and an overhaul of agricultural subsidies among the ideas being floated. The short-term solution is to get the UK to cover as much of the shortfall before it leaves. This will come as a shock to all those voters who swallowed the Brexiters’ lie during the referendum that the UK, far from having to sign a cheque to Brussels, would soon have billions to spend on the NHS. Be that as it may, any attempts by London to reduce the divorce bill once the EU presents it is likely to be met with hostility from 27 finance ministeries across the continent.

Finally, there’s the Irish border question. Nobody wants a hard border on the island of Ireland, but no one can see an obvious solution. The Tories’ new cash-for-votes parliamentary survival pact with Northern Ireland’s DUP has complicated matters further. EU officials are reportedly searching for innovative ways to make the border “invisible”, but such groundbreaking work will take time. The new Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is right to warn that resolving the border issue will be “extremely difficult” despite goodwill on both sides.

As we watch the first rounds of Brexit negotiations getting snagged on technicalities and unforeseen impasses, it is worth recalling that Eurosceptic MP Peter Lilley once suggested a trade deal could be struck in 10 minutes. Lilley stood down at the last election, but Brexit reality looks set to grind on long after his departure.

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Edited by Alan Wheatley

3 Responses to “Brexit talks already getting lost in the weeds”

  • What a bloody awful mess this is. And the only things standing in the way of a sensible outcome (i.e. remaining in with some control of immigration) are the pride, egos and self interest of the main players on this side of the channel.

    Why can’t we have a strong PM with some balls who simply says that leaving the EU will cause us so much pain that it cannot be borne.

    The joke is that if the referendum was held now, most would vote to say in.

  • Couldn’t agree more with Mr Morrison. The whole Brexit saga is becoming totally absurd and the UK government is apparently prepared to spend millions to reproduce the situation that the UK currently enjoys as a member of the EU as least as far as the single market is concerned. As to the rest: the future of Europe, foreign policy, climate change, migration, environment, security, defence, the UK will be gloriously isolated enjoying its sovereignty and wondering how it will influence European and World policies in the future. As the Danish Foreign Minister said recently: ” In the world there are some small countries and other countries who do not know that they are small “.