Barnier may get more wriggle room to help break Brexit impasse
Frustration of EU negotiator could be eased if EU leaders give him enlarged mandate
UK chief Brexit negotiator David Davis (left) and the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier give a press briefing at the end of the fifth round of negotiations at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, today. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA
The frustration of EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier at the Brexit talks press conference was clear. On the one hand placatory, in insisting it was wrong to see the negotiations on Brexit as being about one side wringing “concessions” out of the other – both share a common purpose and objectives, he said – he nevertheless was quite prepared to use the “impasse” word and had no problem blaming London.
Barnier made clear that the deadlock on the UK Brexit “financial settlement” strand of talks, which went nowhere this week, was attributable to the UK dragging its heels over putting on paper the commitments entered into by prime minister Theresa May in her Florence speech last month.
“This week . . . the UK told us again that they were not prepared to specify these commitments. Therefore, there hasn’t been any negotiations . . . We made do with only technical discussions,” he said. “On this basis, I am not ready to propose to the European Council to open negotiations on the future relationship.
“On this question, we have reached a state of deadlock, which is very disturbing,” he added.
It has been clear for at least a couple of weeks that next week’s EU summit would not find itself able to open the next phase of Brexit talks with the UK. That was explicitly confirmed on Thursday by Barnier, to the annoyance of UK chief negotiator David Davis, who in vain repeated his hope they could move on. The earliest he can hope for is December.
Shock of departure
But there has been considerable talk in Brussels about Barnier’s supposed willingness to open up preliminary discussion on “transition”, the likely two-year period after formal Brexit in March 2019 when the UK is expected to seek to continue to maintain its rights and obligations under EU rules to soften the shock of departure.
Reports in the British press about last Friday’s meeting of EU ambassadors suggest Barnier wanted to open up discussions on the issue of “transition” ahead of the phase-two discussions on the “future relationship”.
Notionally, transition is a phase-two issue, and the Germans are reported to have opposed varying the Barnier mandate until more UK commitments are nailed down.
Diplomatic sources suggest Barnier’s intentions were not as clear-cut – there was no rebuff by ambassadors – and were simply about suggesting preparatory work “scoping” the sort of issues that could arise in transition talks. He said on Thursday he remained “convinced today that with political will, decisive progress is within our grasp in the next two months”.
“Slowly but surely over the next few weeks I will explore the way forward, if there is the necessary will – I will explore ways to get out of this deadlock we find ourselves in.”
The reference was taken as a coded hint that he hopes the leaders at the summit may give him an enlarged mandate, or at least give the nod to an enlarged interpretation of his mandate.
Among other “divorce” issues that could be facilitated by a discussion on the modalities of UK transition are the financial settlement, on which only the most general of UK promises have been made so far.
A willingness to continue contributing to the EU budget for the transition period on the current basis could appear to reduce the disputed exit bill by by some €20 billion, and make it far more palatable in the UK.
Although also keen to see more British commitments nailed down, there is also some Irish interest in moving to the next phase of talks, when the really big North-South difficulties, notably the Border and trade, can be be addressed in a practical way. But the Irish are understood to emphasise the need to let Barnier do it all at his own pace.
We can expect next week’s summit to accept his assessment of the state of the talks and to put off to December any discussion of second-phase talks. But Barnier will get the wriggle room he needs to explore possibilities.