After almost a year of chest beating from both sides, the UK and EU finally sat down today to begin negotiations over Brexit – and Brussels drew first blood.
When Theresa May triggered the formal Brexit process in March through her Article 50 letter, she was clear: the future trade arrangement should be discussed alongside the terms of Britain’s departure:
“We believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.”
The EU rejected that proposal, arguing the divorce bill needed to be settled before negotiations on trade could begin.
Brexit Secretary David Davis doubled down on the UK’s position in May, predicting discussions over timetabling would be the “row of the summer.”
Yet after a few hours of talks in Brussels today, the row was averted, with Britain seemingly giving in.
Before any trade talks can take place, the remaining 27 EU leaders must be convinced enough progress is being made in three key areas:
It is clear: the EU27 has the power to decide when trade talks begin – not the UK.
In the press conference after the first day of talks, Davis was asked if he had “lost the argument” on timetabling already.
The Brexit Secretary read out a section from May’s Article 50 letter, which only seemed to highlight his concession, before adding: “When we eventually get to the point where the Council decide we have made enough progress, both sets of dialogue will continue, including free trade, not just trade, including customs, security, obviously cooperation in all sorts of ways.”
The EU’s trade negotiator Michel Barnier was bullish when asked if, given the UK’s early hours compromise he would be making any concessions.
“I am not in a frame of mind to make concessions, or ask for concessions. It’s not about punishment, it is not about revenge.
Basically, we are implementing the decision taken by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, and unravel 43 years of patiently-built relations.
I will do all I can to put emotion to one side and stick to the facts, the figures, and the legal basis, and work with the United Kingdom to find an agreement in that frame of mind…
The United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union, it is not the other way around. The United Kingdom is going to leave the European Union, single market and the customs union, not the other way around. So, we each have to assume our responsibility and the consequences of our decisions. And the consequences are substantial.”
While Davis has conceded on trade and divorce bill talks being carried out in parallel from the start, the issue of Ireland’s border with the UK is playing out how he predicted.
In that Peston interview in May, Davis said:
“How on earth do you resolve the border, the issue of the border with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, unless you know what our general borders policy is, what the customs agreement is, what the free trade agreement is, whether you need to charge tariffs at the border or not?”
Today, he confirmed work on solving to the border conundrum would probably take place right up until the March 2019 deadline:
“This is a technically difficult issue, but it is one which I am certain is solvable although it will probably take us to the end of the process when we will have decided what our customs and free trade arrangements are. That’s why we’re starting now.”
Davis and Barnier both admitted the Irish border question dominated the first negotiating session, but there did seem to be progress on the issue of EU citizens’ rights.
The Brexit Secretary revealed the Government would publish a paper on Monday setting out its offer to EU citizens living in the UK:
“Ever since the referendum, I have been clear that my first priority is to provide certainty to European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom, and to UK citizens resident in the European Union — and I know Michel shares that aspiration too.
So now that the negotiations have started, we are determined to get on with the job and deliver that certainty as soon as possible.
The prime minister will later this week update European leaders on the UK’s approach to this issue at the European Council.
We will then publish a detailed paper, outlining our offer on Monday, which I believe will form the right basis on which to reach agreement.”
Despite the positive movement on citizens rights, and the acceptance of the challenge of the Irish border issue, Barnier will be happier with today’s session than Davis.
Already, the steering wheel is in the hands of the EU, while the accelerator is locked in position, speeding the UK out of the bloc in March 2019 whether a deal is agreed or not.