Analysis

EU look like grown ups, as Tory tantrums threaten transition

by Luke Lythgoe | 09.02.2018

The contrast in behaviour between the European Commission, tasked with coordinating 27 EU countries, and Theresa May’s bickering Tories is almost embarrassing to watch. The consequences of indecision and delusion in London were all too clear when Michel Barnier warned: “The transition is not a given.”

The comment came as the EU’s chief negotiator held a one-man press conference ahead of the new Brexit talks with David Davis. Barnier said there were “substantial” disagreements over the terms of the transition. These include May’s decision not to extend the rights of EU citizens who arrive in the UK during the transition, and the UK’s demand to be able to object to new EU laws if it doesn’t agree with them.

This week has also seen Brexiter outrage at a yet-to-be-agreed legal text giving the EU the powers to use sanctions on the UK if it breaks the terms of the transition deal. Davis has branded the EU “discourteous” for this position.

All these confrontations are red meat to the Tory Brextremists. May needs to look like she’s putting up a fight to fend off rebellion from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson.

In contrast, Barnier deployed measured arguments to justify his “very logical” position. Take the row over possible EU sanctions during the transition. He explained it was “perfectly normal in an international agreement” to have mechanisms to settle disputes – as Brussels has agreed with Switzerland. The EU has ways to use sanctions on member states, including the UK, at the moment. But, Barnier explained, these would take too long for a “very short transitional period”, and new mechanisms needed to be put in place.

Instead of going on the attack, Barnier attempted to defuse the row by pointing out that the UK “traditionally faces very few infringement proceedings”, implying he didn’t expect it to come to sanctions.

Another lesson May’s secretive, hard-Brexit administration could learn from Barnier’s comments is how transparency can give you the moral high ground. Barnier hammered home the Commission’s aim to be transparent with the European Parliament, leaders of the 27 EU countries, their citizens and businesses.

Compare that to the fallout over the last couple of weeks from the government’s attempts to cover up leaked economic analysis. Brexiters attacked civil servants in the media, ministers misled Parliament, and the reports still haven’t been made public.

The government’s argument is that the information would undermine their negotiating position. It’s hard to see how when the EU has already published its own impact assessments online. As pro-European Tory Nicky Morgan wryly put it: “Nothing undermines a negotiating position more than not having one.”

The bitter Tory infighting, and the policy vacuum it leaves, is allowing the EU to set the terms of Brexit in its interest. Perhaps May thinks she’s being clever, and by saying nothing and letting the Brexiters go on the attack she’s keeping her party together. But as Barnier suggests, this approach could backfire and leave May with no transition deal facing an economic cliff-edge. The clock is ticking, and the Tories are in a real mess.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

4 Responses to “EU look like grown ups, as Tory tantrums threaten transition”

  • I’m beginning to wonder if The British People, i.e. 17m out of 65m, might have made a mistake. Fun to watch if you’re not a Brit.

  • The lone press conference by Michel Barnier has made it clear that there are problems with the transition/implementation period which may be insoluble. Is it not time to examine urgently the recent suggestion by Jacob Rees-Mogg (of all people) that an extension of the Article 50 time period be sought as an alternative? As far as I can see this would avoid all the problems now specified by Barnier and keep the UK longer in a decision-making situation, avoiding what Rees- Mogg calls a “vassal state” role. It would need unanimous agreement from “the 27” but I reckon this would be available. The only reason I see against this is the government’s reluctance to tell the brexiteers that the date for formally leaving the EU will be postponed. Surely there are more important considerations here than that.

  • The chaotic shenanigans of the Tory Government are worse than “embarrassing”, from people who have the fate of a nation in their incompetent hands they are downright shambolic and disgusting to watch.

  • What I don’t understand about the current Government stance, is that the Conservatives have always been on the side of business interests. Aside from eccentrics such as Messrs Weatherspoons and Dyson, there is very little support amongst the business community for Brexit. And certain sectors and regions look like they will be especially hard hit. Not to mention financial services and the City of London. So why are the business community unable to pursuade the Government to act in their interests?