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Brexit talks are bogged down at the first hurdle

by Quentin Peel | 19.07.2017

Judging by what little information is emerging from the Brexit negotiations in Brussels this week, there is still a distinct lack of British urgency about the whole exercise. These are the first proper face-to-face talks more than three months after the UK tabled its Article 50 plea to leave the EU. The official line in London is that they can be completed by autumn 2018, and signed, sealed and ratified for an exit by the end of March, 2019. That looks like pure fantasy.

David Davis’ briefest of appearances at the Berlaymont for a photo opportunity, and then his departure after barely an hour of talks, suggested that he had more important things to do. But his only job, as Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, is to lead these negotiations. His casual attitude, symbolised by the absence of any notes on the negotiating table, beggars belief.

EU officials think their UK opposite numbers are simply unprepared. An alternative explanation is that they are deliberately dragging their feet as a negotiating tactic. They have kept the British parliament and the general public in the dark about their intentions at home. Now they seem intent on doing the same in Brussels.

The hardest part of these early talks will be to find acceptable terms for a financial settlement – a contribution by the UK to pay for its outstanding EU commitments, such as pensions and long-running programmes. Michel Barnier, EU negotiator, has put forward a proposal on what should be included, with no figures, only principles. But the European Council insists that unless there is acceptable progress towards agreement, substantive talks on the ultimate trade relationship – which the UK does want most urgently – cannot start.

According to Politico, the UK is not planning to make any counter-proposal on the financial settlement, but rather will try to unpick the EU paper “line by line”. Barnier is said to be ready to “stall” the talks if there is no proper UK response. The only sign of progress so far is that the government has admitted – in a written parliamentary answer by Baroness Joyce Anelay, junior Brexit minister, last week – that “the UK has obligations to the EU…that will survive the UK’s withdrawal (and) these need to be resolved”.

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European budget battles are zero sum games, where every finance ministry in the EU has its own money on the line. Those with long memories will recall that Margaret Thatcher’s battle for a budget rebate lasted all of five years, and caused an infamous period of “euro-sclerosis” from 1979-84, before François Mitterrand found a political compromise, and Helmut Kohl paid for it. According to the FT, that deal is coming back to haunt the Brexit talks. Five years to settle sound positively speedy.

When Davis gave evidence to the House of Lords EU select committee on July 11, he hinted at the British tactics. It was the rest of the EU that wanted a budget settlement, so they could put forward their proposal and fight for it, he said. He wasn’t going to help them. The UK wanted a long-term trade deal. So when trade talks loomed, he would put forward a proposal on that.

All this is mere tactical manoeuvring, although it is dangerously confrontational. So is the fact that Davis took a vast team of more than 90 negotiators to Brussels, double the size of the EU team, as if to deny any suggestion of being unprepared.

British civil servants are regarded in Brussels with huge respect as among the most competent of all European bureaucrats. On this occasion, however, they still don’t have clear guidance on their brief from the government they serve. So the negotiations resemble little more than a surreal ballet, in which neither side has any clear idea of the outcome towards which they are working.

Edited by Sam Ashworth-Hayes