This week’s Brexit talks devoid of political grandstanding

Six-a-side Irish talks opened on Tuesday under watchful eye of Irish Embassy

An official carries a Union Jack flag ahead of a news conference in Brussels by Britain’s Brexit secretary  David Davis and EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photograph:  Reuters/Francois Lenoir

An official carries a Union Jack flag ahead of a news conference in Brussels by Britain’s Brexit secretary David Davis and EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photograph: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

 

“Come back to me when you have been briefed by perfidious Albion,” an Irish official suggested to me. He would put me right.

I should note that in the absence of an Irish Times typeface for irony, the comment was largely tongue in cheek.

In truth, the Brexit talks this week were pretty polite and remarkably devoid of the sort of political grandstanding and intrigue that has characterised the British Brexit debate. Diplomats and officials on both sides were quietly pleased that they had now got down to the detailed work of scoping out each others’ positions and “talking answers”.

At the press briefing on Thursday, both EU and UK negotiators expressed satisfaction that the talks had done much to clarify their respective positions, and had laid the basis for a different kind of engagement next time.

A flurry of position papers from the UK at the end of last week on issues ranging from the European Court of Justice to membership of Euratom gave the lie, said UK negotiators, to the repeated suggestion – a source of deep hurt to the British – that they were not properly prepared.

Now there would be something to talk about, positions to be contrasted, compromises assessed.

The week was the second round of what will now be monthly working-group talks, but there were slim pickings for a desperate Anglophone Brussels press corps hounded by news desks back home for the slightest crumbs from the talks table.

Icebergs

The temptation to turn every hint of disagreement into a “major crisis” was all too readily indulged. And although there are clearly icebergs on this ship’s course, there was, however, less talk this week of Mrs May’s “no deal” option.

The European Commission maintained its vow of silence on progress until Thursday, batting away more and more desperate questions from the press at our daily briefings.

How were they coping with the “invasion” of 98 British negotiators? commission spokeswoman Margaritis Schinas was asked.

“We don’t feel that we have been invaded. For us the article 50 negotiations are now in the hands of the divorce lawyers. These are the people who do the job.”

“Who fears to speak of ’98?” muttered my colleague Arthur Beesley.

There was great excitement when the British press discovered that Brit No 99, Brexit secretary David Davis, had, as planned, headed home on the Eurostar only hours after arriving. He was back to be briefed on progress on Thursday.

One journalist dredged up an old quote from commission president Jean Claude Juncker, suggesting that once the talks were under way he would be hands-off on Brexit and devote only half an hour a week to the issue. Could we have a breakdown of this week’s 30 minutes by theme, one hack asked. No.

And then there was the shock, horror, snub-to-Brits in the revelation their team had been served “continental” biscuits with their coffee.

Divorce lawyer

Desperate for an angle, journalists from the most respectable of outlets recycled a story from last week in the suggestion that EU “divorce lawyer” and chief negotiator Michel Barnier would stall the talks unless the UK at least acknowledged it had financial liabilities to the EU that it was willing to honour. It did so on Thursday last with a somewhat cryptic statement in the Commons that was deemed sufficient by the 27.

No question, however, of coming up with a figure – and the commission’s reported €65 billion bill to London is still being derided there.

By Monday the story had now become a Barnier ultimatum to stall the talks unless the UK came up with a written paper in response to the commission’s paper on the divorce bill, the “financial settlement”.

Not true.

And it now appears the Brits have no intention of putting pen to paper on the issue to elaborate on what they have called their “survivable obligations”, and that the Barnier team is not really bothered.

The British alternative to a formal response, however, we learned on Wednesday, is to turn the tables on the commission and accuse it of lack of detailed preparation – there’s hutzpah! – and to demand a legal base or justification for every single EU programme in the multiannual financial framework (MFF) – the EU budget – from which most of its financial liabilities are said to arise.

Agonisingly long

The process is likely to be agonisingly long and unlikely to conclude ahead of this October’s summit, which will be asked to rule whether “sufficient progress” has been made on the three priority issues – citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish problems – to allow talks on trade to proceed .

How much the UK will eventually be billed will be based on a valuation of the EU’s assets and the UK’s refundable share of them.

One of the most difficult issues that appears only to have arisen in passing this week is how to calculate the UK share of Europe’s bank, the EIB. Depending on how that is measured, the UK may be in for a rebate of between €3.6 billion and a frightening €11 billion. Sources close to the bank warn that the latter figure could jeopardise its financial rating and its ability to borrow and lend.

It is one, with Euratom membership, of a collection of “separation issues” also on the priority talks agenda.

The Irish talks opened on Tuesday – a six-a-side – under senior team members, Barnier deputy Sabine Weyand and Brexit department secretary Olly Robbins, with the deeply-plugged-in Irish Embassy more or less watching over their shoulders. In lock step, they said, with the EU’s team.

From the start it was clear that although there were serious legal issues to be worked through, at least both sides were on the same page, or as a British official put it, in the language of the talks, the two sides’ positions “almost perfectly mapped the guidelines and mandate set out by the 27”.

Irish issues

Yet by parking the thorniest of the Irish issues – how to deal with trade over the Border – into the second phase of talks, the negotiating teams have ensured at least the reasonable possibility of “substantial progress” by October on both the preservation of the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK and the ingredients of the Belfast Agreement “in all its aspects” – a reference to the 12 specific cross-Border co-operation projects mentioned in the agreement (from energy, to agriculture, to tourism) and issues like EU citizenship rights for Northerners who claim Irish citizenship,

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney threw a curve ball into proceedings ahead of those conversations on Monday when, on a visit to Brussels, he warned against imagining there were “technical solutions” to the cross-Border trade issue.

Davis has repeatedly mentioned the possibility of technical options such as “trusted trader” schemes, scanners and electronic licence plate recognition. They “would not work”, Coveney warned, also repeating the Government insistence that any form of hard border would be simply unacceptable.

His comments have been viewed with some concern in the North as appearing to suggest that there might be no alternative to the return of fixed border posts at the 300-plus crossings.

Irish sources were suggesting Coveney was not ruling out technological alternatives to border posts, but wanted them seen realistically as just part of a bigger more complex package.

Risk management

Former Irish customs official and EU commission official Rob Murphy argues that a soft border – i.e. border post-free – option is still viable using technology and other means. The challenge lies in “risk management” and initially targeting the six or seven roads that carry the vast bulk of traffic – a combination of technology and trusted-trader schemes with close co-operation between the authorities North and South.

He argues that the challenge for the governments – whether or not duty is going to have to be levied at the Border – does not lie in how to monitor the larger traders, many of whom are already signed up to and work comfortably in trusted trader schemes.

SMEs, particularly around the Border, would, however, face substantial administrative burdens in keeping goods moving. A significantly lighter touch to their customs registration requirements would be needed.

And there would be no alternative but to continue mobile customs patrols and spot checks to curb the substantial illegal trade across the Border of, among other things, illegal diesel and cigarettes that is already a fact of life. He argues that this would also require a new memorandum of understanding between the customs authorities North and South to allow closer co-operation and even joint operations.

Any new regime will have to be robust to satisfy both the EU’s antifraud office and the 26 other member states, but this issue is very much related to the final shape of any future EU-UK trade deal, and a matter for second-phase talks next year.

Not a pushover

The other priority issue for discussion, citizens’ rights, provided the opportunity on Thursday for the UK to show its domestic audience that it was not a pushover.

British officials suggested that EU negotiators were this week already preparing to shift their position on their insistence that the European Court of Justice serve to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit. And that a “landing zone” would be found somewhere between the two positions.

And their press office spiced up the anodyne conclusions to the meeting with a claim that the EU offer on citizens’ rights would deny the right of UK citizens settled in the EU to move from EU state to EU state while retaining their new residency rights. No more, the commission pointed out, than the UK would do too.

It was good, the London hacks agreed, to end on a note of disharmony.

A better story.

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