Edgy dinner date fails to quell Brexit concerns

Opening salvos in negotiations not an ideal start

Last weekend, the EU27 got together to decide on its negotiation strategy with the UK once the formal Brexit talks begin in the weeks following Britain’s general election on June 8.

Apparently there was a very strong consensus among the 27 participant countries at the meeting about what needs to be done to protect the strength and integrity of the EU. It is clear that there is little appetite to give the UK any concessions that might weaken the EU, particularly in relation to the freedom of movement of people, which is one of the four key pillars upon which the Single European Market is built.

From an EU perspective, this is a very obvious starting point and it remains to be seen to what extent the trading block will be prepared to compromise.

Separately, lots of strange stories have emerged about what went down at the dinner between the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and his people, and British prime minister Theresa May and some of her Brexit people.

As became clear from Ms May’s speech on January 17, the UK view seems to be that it can enjoy all of the benefits of the Single European Market without having to accept any of the bits it does not like, such as the freedom of movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Not surprisingly, this is not exactly how the EU side views the world.

Bridging this chasm will not be an easy or straightforward task, putting it very mildly. Hence, the dinner most probably was not a very pleasant culinary experience for any of those around the people, but particularly for the UK side, I suspect. It must be becoming increasingly obvious to the UK side that the EU holds most — if not all — of the trump cards going into what will be a very difficult and fractious negotiation process.

The differences that apparently emerged over the dinner are very significant and if not managed in a very diplomatic way could blow the whole process out of the water before it even begins.

The EU believes it is owed anything up to €100bn by the UK due to previous EU spending commitments that Britain signed up to. If reports of the dinner are to be believed, one of Ms May’s Brexit geniuses, David Davis, basically told Mr Juncker that the EU would not be able to force the UK to pay over any monies once the UK is gone from the EU. Mr Juncker is reported to have responded that, in that event, no EU member country would be prepared to do any sort of trade deal with the UK. This promises to be tricky and is not an ideal start.

Ms May wants the negotiation to happen in four-day blocks every month and that the proceeding of those meetings should be kept secret until the end, which, from her domestic political perspective, would make life considerably easier. On the other hand, the EU has committed to issuing regular updates on the negotiations in the spirit of total transparency and to offset criticisms about the secrecy of the EU.

These are just two examples of disagreement at this very early stage, and there will be lots more. The nightmare scenario for Ireland would be an early implosion of the talks and an immediate hard Brexit for the UK, with all of the negative implications that this would imply for Ireland’s vital trade with the UK. In that event, any special treatments that Ireland has secured will go out the window.

One of the intriguing developments to watch over the coming weeks will be the approach taken by the new president of France, who will probably be the pro-EU Emmanuel Macron.

If Mr Macron does win, he will do so against a background of close to 50% of the French who voted in the first round a couple of weeks back, having voted for rabidly anti-EU parties. A Macron victory will not make that anti-EU sentiment go away and so his whole approach to the EU will have to be very nuanced.

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