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UK’s Brexit negotiators only starting to understand EU – Catherine Day

Top Brussels aide says UK media will ‘change mood music’ and make talks more difficult

Catherine Day, secretary general European Commission, told a media seminar in Dublin that the British were not yet ready to negotiate the UK’s departure from the EU. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Britain’s political negotiators on Brexit are only understanding “very late in the day” how the European Union works, a senior adviser to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has said.

Irish woman Catherine Day, the former secretary general of the commission, told a media seminar in Dublin that the British were not yet ready to negotiate the UK’s departure from the EU.

She argued that the UK’s negotiating position was “we want everything we like and we don’t want anything we don’t like” and that British negotiators could not go into technical talks with this mandate.

“What we are seeing in the political negotiating team is people who don’t really understand how the EU works and are now just beginning to discover it very late in the day,” she said at the Institute for International and European Affairs.

Ms Day said her experience of the British was they were “very pragmatic” and that it would just take a long time before their “normal pragmatism comes into play.” This was why she felt that it might be a good idea to extend the two-year negotiations beyond the country’s proposed exit date in March 2019.

Anti-EU bias

Declan Kelleher, Ireland’s permanent representative to the EU, shared Ms Day’s concerns, citing the lack of clear focus on what the British want.

“We have seen nothing from them so far on what they want and how they propose to achieve it,” he said during a panel discussion at the Dublin think tank.

Speaking on anti-EU bias in the British press, Ms Day said that the media’s view that the UK was considered to have “caved in” by accepting the EU’s sequencing was “not a good sign of things to come.”

“If you have a simplistic mentality that every negotiating session Britain has to win otherwise it’s losing, it is going to make the mood music and the actual handling of the negotiations much more difficult,” she said.

She cautioned that the UK must get used to accepting that its bigger partners “will call most of the shots” during negotiations.

‘Long-haul’ talks

Talks would be “a long-haul exercise,” she said. “The politics has changed in the last few weeks. It could change several times in this long-haul exercise.”

In a later discussion, newspaper and TV current affairs editors discussed the challenge of reporting on a complex subject such as Brexit, and keeping readers and viewers engaged over a prolonged period.

Irish Daily Mail editor Sebastian Hamilton said the media needed to challenge assumptions “even where everybody says we agree on the same thing” and to explain how Brexit will affect ordinary people.

Ian Kehoe, editor of the Sunday Business Post, said the media ran the risk of “Brexit fatigue” and “over-loading the reader” to the point that they will “tune out and look for something entirely different.”

David Nally, managing editor of RTÉ TV current affairs, said that programme makers had covered Brexit many times and knew that it was “a turn-off for viewers.”

Glacial negotiations

The “glacial pace” of Brexit negotiations was “a problem for media,” he said, and expected the topic to return to the top of the news agenda when “people start to feel it in their jobs or in their pockets.”

Paul O’Neill, editor of The Irish Times, said that it was incumbent on the media to “produce a 360-degree view” because “in every divorce there are two sides” and Brexit raised issues for the EU too.

“My slight concern is that because the British side seems so disorganised and so chaotic at the moment that there has been very little focus on the other side of the divorce,” he said.

Irish Independent editor Fionnán Sheehan said he strongly disagreed with anyone who described Brexit as “a boring topic”. It was a “game-changer for people across this country,” he said.