Forgive me for being briefer than I would like but a major wrench got thrown in my schedule.
It wasn’t a hard call to say that Theresa May’s emergency visit to try to get the EU to give the UK a Brexit break was certain to fail. The EU had signaled for over a month that the UK had not made enough progress in the talks thus far for them to agree to let the negotiations move to the next phase, of considering the “future relationship,” meaning above all, trade
However, depending on which press account you believe, the meetings may have achieved the difficult task of making things worse. One of my theories of negotiation is that if two sides have no overlap in their bargaining positions, more interaction does nothing except make their interpersonal relations worse. It appear at most that May’s and David Davis’ personal lobbying at best made even clearer where the points of disagreement lie.
One critical clarification came via the Guardian: the EU member states are more united against the UK on the stumbling block issues, most important, to pretty much finish the first phase negotiations, including reaching a general understanding on the so-called Brexit bill, before moving to new topics. We took note of the accommodating position taken by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and speculated that he was both representing a deal as well as representing his principals, which in the end entails trying to get your side to make concessions.
That was if anything an understatement. Barnier is seen by some EU leaders as going beyond his remit . From the Guardian:
Calls to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, along with a 90-minute dinner in Brussels with the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and his chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, failed to move the dial in the prime minister’s favour, with senior diplomats insisting the UK had not done enough.
A joint statement from Juncker and the prime minister following their dinner gave no indication of any movement in the British government’s favour, but instead included reference to the sequenced approach to the talks insisted upon by Brussels…
European leaders had overruled Barnier when he suggested opening talks on a transition phase, the source added, and member states were in no mood to offer May any succour. “The problem is not in the commission so you will not find the solution in the commission,” the source said. He added that Barnier had overstepped the mark in the eyes of some member states by suggesting some weeks ago that talks over a transition period could be doable following the Florence speech, giving Britain false hope over what was feasible.
And even though May was set to have dinner with Juncker, that was never going to make a dent. Again from the Guardian:
But earlier in the day the latest leak of a draft statement from EU leaders, to be published at a European council summit in Brussels on Friday, made clear the desire among member states to continue to take a tough line with Britain.
Following lobbying from France and Germany, it contained stronger language than a first draft leaked last week, demanding progress on all three of the opening withdrawal issues in order for trade talks to begin, and an additional mention of the need for a role for the European court of justice in protecting citizens rights.
As Politico said in May’s Brexit gambit leaves Brussels mystified:
At least there was an agreement about no leaks….
This time, the two sides issued a joint statement that twice pronounced the dinner “constructive” while also agreeing divorce talks needed to “accelerate” over the next few months.
But it was a sign of just how badly the negotiations have gone that according to officials familiar with the dinner discussion Monday night, May and her advisers sought to enlist Juncker and his top negotiator, Michel Barnier, as Britain’s new allies in Brussels…
Locked out of the Council’s discussion on Brexit on Friday and battered by political critics at home, she correctly identified that Barnier, at least, is committed to finding a solution. Officials in Brussels have repeatedly expressed sympathy for May’s political predicament but stressed they cannot break EU treaty obligations to help her.
Senior Commission and Council officials said they had nothing to add to the joint statement by May and Juncker.
One official, asked if there was any further insight into May’s goals in coming to Brussels, replied cheekily: “Nope, but it was a constructive and friendly dinner.”
The Guardian article also reports that Donald Tusk, European Council president, wanted this Friday’s statement to include text that would give Barnier permission to start talking trade in December if enough progress were made on the open issues. And while it does offer the UK a bone in terms of saying the EU will have think about “the future relationship,” it won’t be much of a think:
It is understood, however, that the EU will not present a detailed vision of the future trading relationship even then. “When it comes to the future framework there is not that much food for thought from London about what it should look like,” one senior source said. “So I would say the guidelines adopted later [in December] will be very much forthcoming when it comes to transition and very general when it comes to the future framework as there is not that much we have got from London on the UK vision.”
At this point, with the talks barely progressing, it seems optimistic to assume the EU will approve adding trade to the negotiations in December. The UK was under pressure to be within hailing distance of an agreement on the three topics at issue, movement of people, the Irish border, and the exit tab, and didn’t. Instead, it acted as if it could bully its way into changing the order of negotiations and failed. There’s not much reason to think the UK is any more prepared to come to decisions on charged issues than it was in the last two months, given the lack of any obvious resolution to the standoff between the hard and moderate Brexit camps within the Tory party.
Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC pre-punctured the Tories’ efforts to put a positive spin on the Brussels fail:
OK, in theory, if I am driving a car at four miles per hour and I speed up to eight miles per hour, technically I am accelerating.
I may still be basically crawling along. I still may be late – very, very late – for my eventual destination. But, by the very action of pressing the pedal and going faster, I am actually speeding up.
If anyone accuses me of going nowhere, or slowing down – well, look at my speedometer. I am going faster and I have evidence that you are wrong!
That is why, in the next few days, don’t be surprised if every Tory politician you see, hear, or read about is using that word (at least those loyal to the government) to claim that there is progress in the Brexit talks, just days after the chief negotiator on the EU side declared a deadlock.
With this as background, the Torygraph falls in line with stressing the “accelerate” word: Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker pledge to ‘accelerate’ Brexit talks – but fail to break deadlock. But the real wowser is from the supposedly more evenhanded Times: ‘EU dragging feet to squeeze bigger payment out of Britain’.
European leaders are deliberately stalling on a deal that would protect the rights of EU and British citizens after Brexit to wring further financial concessions from Theresa May, government sources claimed last night.
Statements like this seem credible in isolation…:
Privately, even some European diplomats admit that calling for the EU courts to have direct oversight of residency rights is a smokescreen. They say it is designed to ensure that the 27 member states cannot be accused of holding up the talks purely over money.
…until you remember that one of the issues on which sufficient progress needs to be made is the Irish border, and despite some bluster by the Government’s mouthpieces, the UK has put nothing credible on the table.
The article then argues that the fact that an agreement on the movement of people is “almost done” means the EU is the stumbling block. The EU’s guidelines for the talks made clear sufficient progress had to be made on all first phase issues before moving on.
And this part confirms that the Times reporters are clueless or mere scriveners for the UK side:
Second, it reflects an acceptance by the British side that it won’t make progress on Thursday unless it gets Mr Juncker and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, on side.
I’m afraid I must give short shrift to a new story in Prospect, Peering over the cliff-edge: why Dominic Cummings fears Brexit will fail. For state-side readers, Cumming is often called “the brains behind Brexit.” Some choice quotes from this must-read piece:
“Theresa May and David Davis have provided a case study of grotesque uselessness” in their approach to Brexit. This comment was not made to Prospect by one of the usual “Remainer” suspects, but by Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave mastermind…
No wonder Cummings is so worried—this epochal diplomatic screw-up could quite easily happen. The government’s Repeal Bill is supposed to take all EU law into UK law, but as Daly points out, even if we’re still “fully convergent with EU law… Belgian customs officials, French financiers, Italian importers… will not recognise the UK as part of the EU trading system.” They won’t be allowed to. The Repeal Bill fills the domestic legal vacuum, but without a deal with Europe, our “current trading arrangements will fall into a void.”
Nor is the idea of falling into the arms of a newly-cosy trading relationship with America looking so convincing after the US slapped hefty tariffs on Bombardier and jeopardised jobs at the aircraft manufacturer’s plant in Northern Ireland. In truth, it was never going to work.
I really wish there was a prospect for these negotiations getting back on track. But as one of my colleagues liked to say, “Things look the darkest before they go completely black.”