EU sees advantages in UK’s shambolic approach to Brexit

by John Wyles | 09.10.2017

Brussels: As they contemplate their British counterparts across the Brexit negotiating table in Brussels this week, Michel Barnier and his team are approaching this fifth round of talks with the lowest possible expectations.

Senior EU officials no longer try to hide their perplexity about the UK’s strategy nor their pessimism about the chances of any kind of Brexit agreement. The recent lurch in policy towards a transitional phase of two or more years has been greeted with disbelief. They struggle to understand why the UK should plan to quit the Union in March 2019 and then subject itself to its laws and policies as well as the authority of the European Court of Justice for a transitional period, the length of which has still not been formally specified. They wonder whether the Tory party could unite behind such a policy, or whether, indeed there would be a parliamentary majority for it.

“We in Brussels have always had the highest respect for the British civil service but we have never seen such a shambles,” says a senior official. “At the technical level the skills and competence remain as always, but it is being wasted by political leadership that clearly does not know what it wants and where the UK’s relations with the EU should go.” The gap in perception and understanding between senior officials and politicians seems to be widening all the time.

The creation of the Brexit unit in Downing Street and the consequent downgrading of David Davis and his department has created nothing but confusion in Brussels as to who is determining the negotiating strategy. This is less important than it may seem if the approach remains the same. “So far, the Brits have been arguing to retain 70% or 80% of what they have now from membership without wanting to pay anything for it,” says an official close to the negotiations.

It’s UK not EU that’s divided

But there is a real sense in which senior officials see increasing advantage in the tortuous negotiations and the increasingly evident disquiet about Brexit among company chiefs across a wide range of industries. Contrary to the expectations of Boris Johnson and other Brexiters, there is absolutely no evidence that the British are opening cracks in the solid unity of the other 27 member states.

London had been counting on a divide and rule strategy to secure the divorce terms and future trading arrangements it wants. There is a remarkable degree of unity and support for our negotiating priorities in the European Council. The sights of the paralysis in British policy, of a deeply divided nation and the sheer technical difficulties of withdrawal is strengthening the political will of governments to resist populist Euroscepticism on the mainland.

Just as a more robust opposition to Brexit is emerging in the UK, Brussels is resigned to the prospect and moving on. Confidence is increasing that France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel will see eye to eye on a new reform programme to strengthen the economic and monetary union through a process of institutional change and enhanced integration.

“We shall be sorry to see the Brits go but in recent years they cared for nothing except blocking or watering down proposals for stronger, more effective policies,” is the view from the Commission. “We are seeing a nation in agony that does not know where it is going or wants to go. Getting a firmer grip on reality would be a helpful start.”

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Edited by Hugo Dixon