Review 2017: Brexit talks chapter two not for the faint-hearted

Continuation of phase-two talks hinges on honouring stage-one pledges

A remarkable feature of the phase one Brexit discussions was the manner in which the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, skilfully ensured that the 27 remaining states maintained a cohesion and unity of purpose. Photograph: Getty Images

A remarkable feature of the phase one Brexit discussions was the manner in which the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, skilfully ensured that the 27 remaining states maintained a cohesion and unity of purpose. Photograph: Getty Images

 

When EU leaders at their December summit finally opened the second chapter of the great Brexit negotiations saga, two great imponderables hung over the continuing process: could the EU preserve the unity of the 27 and what would the parties actually discuss in the next round of talks?

A remarkable feature of the phase one discussions was the manner in which the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, skilfully ensured that the 27 remaining states maintained a cohesion and unity of purpose – not least in comparison with the multiple mixed messages emanating constantly from London.

That was manifest in December in the Irish strand of talks by the explicit promise by European Council president Donald Tusk to the Government that if it was not happy with the deal the 27 would not sign it. As it happened everyone remained impeccably in step. No question of, no need to exercise, an Irish veto.

At the December summit Taoiseach Leo Varadkar hinted that things might not be as straightforward from here on. Different visions of the close partnership all member states want with the UK are likely to emerge; Ireland’s perspective is that it wants things to change as little as possible.

Crucially, as leaders made clear again in the cliché of the season, the “ball is in the UK’s court”. The options seem to be either remaining in the single market a la Norway, or a free trade agreement along the lines of that signed by Canada with additions, particularly to free up trade in services.

‘Bespoke’

In either case the UK will insist on a “bespoke” arrangement, no matter how close to the off-the-peg deals available. All the better to sell to its intransigent Brexiteer backbenchers.

The willingness of the 27 to sign up at the December summit to the agreement on the three phase one priority issues – citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish Border commitments – was hedged with open scepticism. Would the UK really be able to deliver, more than one EU leader asked, particularly on the “no hard Border” pledge? And especially if the UK stuck to its previously stated red lines.

The European Commission negotiating task force was diplomatic but blunt in its commentary to ministers of the 27 on the deal. The UK’s intention to maintain regulatory alignment with the EU in the context of its overall trade deal  “seems hard to reconcile”, the commission observed, ”with the United Kingdom’s communicated decision to leave the internal market and the customs union”.

Commitments

Whatever the doubts, however, there is no point in looking a gift horse in the mouth. The 27 have taken the offer and will now hold the UK’s feet to the fire to ensure that the commitments are honoured.

Text agreed in the guidelines for discussions on transition make clear that the continuation of all phase two discussions will depend on the honouring of phase one commitments.

By common consent the next round of talks will be more difficult than the first. In part that is a measure of the inevitable complexity of trade talks covering multiple sectors and related issues of regulatory and other alignments.

And in part it reflects that deep-rooted concern at UK indecision and at its internal political obstacles to compromise.

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