Brexit: an intergalactic main course

Barnier hopes to have made progress by October in negotiating three key areas

 

There was never any prospect that the histrionic UK general election debate – “all about Brexit”– would contribute any clarity to the Brexit negotiating process. The best Prime Minister Theresa May could hope for was to find in it some means of painting herself as resolute and unbending, another Margaret Thatcher who would not be shaken by the dastardly Europeans. Above all, no floundering Jeremy Corbyn.

And she got that in spades with the leak of the details of her lunch last week with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. No matter that it revealed apparently absurd misapprehensions, whether genuine or not, about EU procedures and law ... Juncker called her ideas “in a different galaxy” – how many voters will even know? The prime minister cloaked herself in the mantle of Britannia as she dismissed “Brussels gossip”.

May will have been relieved that she stuck to the intransigent positions that she would be most able to defend mid-election

The lunch in Downing Street had been billed as a chance for a frank, private discussion that, presumably, could go beyond the hard-line positioning which is inevitably part and parcel of the posturing at this stage of any talks. When the discussion turned out to be not so private, May will have been relieved that she had stuck to the intransigent positions that she would be most able to defend mid-election – had the leaks revealed a malleable PM willing privately to entertain significant concessions, all hell would have broken loose.

Britain's prime minister Theresa May welcomes president Juncker to Downing Street.
Britain's prime minister Theresa May welcomes president Juncker to Downing Street.

The leak, probably from Juncker’s circle, allows the Commission to show it is dealing with an irrational interlocutor with little understanding of the possible. But it will also make less possible any future private encounters which are bound to be necessary to grease the wheels of diplomacy. And it gives May an unexpected election fillip.

However, some further clarity was provided yesterday when chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier set out his stall, providing detail which filled out the Commission’s mandate approved on Saturday. Barnier said he hopes to have made “significant progress” by October on three key areas – borders, particularly in Ireland, the rights of EU citizens and what he called a “rigorous process” for calculating a financial settlement – to then allow parallel talks on trade to begin.

In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required

He refused to be drawn on the final UK Brexit bill, although the Financial Times yesterday revised its estimate of what it said was likely to be the EU demand up to €100 billion. A figure would emerge at the end of the process, Barnier said. On Ireland his report reiterates the Commission position: “In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including with the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the union legal order. In this context, the union should also recognise existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between the UK and Ireland which are compatible with EU law”. But writing it down is the easy bit.

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