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Analysis

Britain teeters into Brexit talks

by Paul Taylor | 16.06.2017

Theresa May’s minority government opens historic negotiations on withdrawing from the European Union on Monday ill-prepared, politically weakened and no longer so sure about what kind of Brexit it wants.

When Brexit secretary David Davis meets EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels with just 19 months left until the deadline for Britain’s exit, the British camp will struggle to conceal its disarray after May lost her majority – and with it most of her authority – in this month’s bungled general election. She may still be in office, clinging on for now for lack of a challenger, but she is no longer truly in power and her Conservative cabinet is split on how hard or soft a Brexit to pursue.

Fortunately, the EU side has spared Britain from having to make early decisions on whether to stay in the single market or the customs union, permanently or for a transition period, by insisting on discussing the divorce settlement before the future relationship. May had set leaving both as red lines while seeking the closest possible trade ties with the bloc.

This gives the government extra time to reflect on how to minimise damage to the economy, and to consult the business community, lawmakers and even experts, if it is more willing to listen now than May was before the election. It also leaves senior ministers such as chancellor Philip Hammond and Cabinet Office first secretary of state Damian Green room to press for a softer Brexit with a long transition period – and perhaps for remaining in the customs union after all.

Hammond hinted today at divisions in government ranks when he said the UK would “prioritise” the economy and jobs in the negotiations and was open to suggestions from the EU about how to ensure this.  He further hinted at wiggle room by saying May’s commitment to take the UK out of the single market and customs union remained the “broad principles” of the UK’s position.

The EU corner is well prepared for the opening rounds. Barnier has a clear, if restrictive, mandate from the European Council and guidelines from the European Parliament that matter because EU lawmakers must ratify the outcome of the negotiations. He has sent detailed position papers to Britain in preparation, but the government has not sent the EU its position papers because of the post-election turmoil, according to the Independent.

Ministers have trailed an “extremely generous offer” on the rights of EU citizens in Britain, one of the three issues Barnier is mandated to discuss alongside a financial settlement of Britain’s obligations and the Irish border. If the offer guarantees all EU citizens living in Britain prior to Brexit an automatic continuation of the full rights granted to them by the EU treaty, including on healthcare and welfare, that would be a major step forward. But Barnier has flagged that there are many detailed issues that will need to be settled, including whether the European Court of Justice will continue to be the ultimate recourse for EU citizens seeking to uphold their rights in a post-Brexit UK, as Brussels wishes.

On the exit bill, Britain’s position remains shrouded in mystery. The financial settlement was barely mentioned in the White Paper the government published in February. In public, hardline Brexiter ministers have resorted to bluster along the lines of “we don’t owe them anything”. Boris Johnson told the Daily Telegraph last month “the bill that’s been presented at the moment is absurd” and accused EU officials of trying “to bleed this country white”.

Barnier has said his brief is to achieve substantial progress on the principles of a financial settlement before moving on to discuss the framework for Britain’s future relationship with the EU and a possible transition period in a second phase.

EU officials say it’s not clear to them whether a weaker minority government, dependent on Ulster unionists for its parliamentary survival, will be more flexible and less wedded to a “hard Brexit”. They note that at least for now, May’s mantra of “no deal is better than a bad deal” has ceased. Whether her enfeebled administration is willing and able to negotiate the least harmful deal for the UK will probably depend on how the balance of domestic political forces plays out.

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Edited by Michael Prest

2 Responses to “Britain teeters into Brexit talks”

  • Meanwhile we have the self-confessed liar David Davis at the negotiating table. Doesn’t inspire any confidence at all. He’s just one of a number of so-called British Government ministers who are now international laughing stocks.

    Somebody should have the guts to stand up and say that the whole nonsense of Brexit is so very harmful to the country and to all its citizens, including Brexiteers who are still stuck in their la-la land of meaningless slogans such as “take back control”, that it should be called off and a good period of time allowed for the country and economy to get back to normal.

    • Somebody should have the guts to stand up to tell what nonsense Brexit actually is. I keep wondering just what it would take for that to happen!