Britain faces up to Brexit — Michel Barnier, David Davis Negotiations are Theater of the Absurd (Théâtre de l’Absurde)

As long as the government stays in denial about Brexit’s drawbacks, the country is on course for disaster

CRISIS? What crisis? So many have been triggered in Britain by the vote a year ago to leave the European Union that it is hard to keep track. Just last month Theresa May was reduced from unassailable iron lady to just-about-managing minority prime minister. Her cabinet is engaged in open warfare as rivals position themselves to replace her. The Labour Party, which has been taken over by a hard-left admirer of Hugo Chávez, is ahead in the polls. Meanwhile a neurotic pro-Brexit press shrieks that anyone who voices doubts about the country’s direction is an unpatriotic traitor. Britain is having a very public nervous breakdown.

The chaos at the heart of government hardly bodes well for the exit negotiations with the EU, which turned to detailed matters this week and need to conclude in autumn 2018. But the day-to-day disorder masks a bigger problem. Despite the frantic political activity in Westminster—the briefing, back-stabbing and plotting—the country has made remarkably little progress since the referendum in deciding what form Brexit should take. All versions, however “hard” or “soft”, have drawbacks (see article). Yet Britain’s leaders have scarcely acknowledged that exit will involve compromises let alone how damaging they are likely to be. The longer they fail to face up to Brexit’s painful trade-offs, the more brutal will be the eventual reckoning with reality.

Winging it

In the 13 months since the referendum, the awesome complexity of ending a 44-year political and economic union has become clear. Britain’s position on everything from mackerel stocks to nuclear waste is being worked out by a civil service whose headcount has fallen by nearly a quarter in the past decade and which has not negotiated a trade deal of its own in a generation. Responsibility for Brexit is shared—or, rather, fought over and sometimes dropped—by several different departments. Initially Britain’s decision not to publish a detailed negotiating position, as the EU had, was put down to its desire to avoid giving away its hand. It now seems that Britain triggered exit talks before working out where it stood. The head of its public-spending watchdog said recently that when he asked ministers for their plan he was given only “vague” assurances; he fears the whole thing could fall apart “at the first tap”.

As the scale of the task has become apparent, so has the difficulty of Britain’s position. Before the referendum Michael Gove, a leading Brexiteer in the cabinet, predicted that, “The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards.” It is not turning out like that. So far, where there has been disagreement Britain has given way. The talks will be sequenced along the lines suggested by the EU. Britain has conceded that it will pay an exit bill, contrary to its foreign secretary’s suggestion only a week ago that Eurocrats could “go whistle” for their money.

The hobbled Mrs May has appealed to other parties to come forward with ideas on how to make Brexit work. Labour, which can hardly believe that it is within sight of installing a radical socialist prime minister in 10 Downing Street, is unsurprisingly more interested in provoking an election. But cross-party gangs of Remainer MPs are planning to add amendments to legislation, forcing the government to try to maintain membership of Euratom, for instance, which governs the transit of radioactive material in Europe. Even within the government, the prime minister’s lack of grip means that cabinet ministers have started openly disagreeing about what shape Brexit should take. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, has been sniped at because he supports a long transition period to make Brexit go smoothly—a sensible idea which is viewed with suspicion by some Brexiteers, who fear the transition stage could become permanent.

The reopening of the debate is welcome, since the hard exit proposed in Mrs May’s rejected manifesto would have been needlessly damaging. But there is a lack of realism on all sides about what Britain’s limited options involve. There are many ways to leave the EU, and none is free of problems. The more Britain aims to preserve its economic relationship with the continent, the more it will have to follow rules set by foreign politicians and enforced by foreign judges (including on the sensitive issue of freedom of movement). The more control it demands over its borders and laws, the harder it will find it to do business with its biggest market. It is not unpatriotic to be frank about these trade-offs. Indeed, it is more unpatriotic to kid voters into thinking that Brexit has no drawbacks at all.

The government has not published any estimates of the impact of the various types of Brexit since the referendum, but academic studies suggest that even the “softest” option—Norwegian-style membership of the European Economic Area—would cut trade by at least 20% over ten years, whereas the “hardest” exit, reverting to trade on the World Trade Organisation’s terms, would reduce trade by 40% and cut annual income per person by 2.6%. As the economy weakens, these concerns will weigh more heavily. Britain’s economy is growing more slowly than that of any other member of the EU. The election showed that its voters are sick of austerity. Our own polling finds that, when forced to choose, a majority now favours a soft Brexit, inside the single market (see article).

Back in play

A febrile mood in the country, and the power vacuum in Downing Street, mean that all options are back on the table. This is panicking people on both sides of the debate. Some hardline Brexiteers are agitating again for Britain to walk away from the negotiations with no deal, before voters have a change of heart. Some Remainers are stepping up calls for a second referendum, to give the country a route out of the deepening mess. As the negotiations blunder on and the deadline draws nearer, such talk will become only more fevered.

So it is all the more crucial that all sides face up to the real and painful trade-offs that Brexit entails. The longer Britain keeps its head in the sand, the more likely it is to end up with no deal, and no preparations for the consequences. That would bring a crisis of a new order of magnitude.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Facing up to Brexit”
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David Davis (left) and Michel Barnier at their news conference in Brussels. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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Michel Barnier blasts David Davis for ‘lack of clarity’ on EU ‘divorce bill’ as four days of Brexit talks end in deadlock
Updated: 20th July 2017, 
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MICHEL Barnier has blasted David Davis for a “lack of clarity” on the so-called EU “divorce bill” as four days of Brexit talks break up with little progress.

But the UK’s Brexit Secretary struck a more positive tone at today’s Brussels press conference, saying he is “encouraged by progress” on a range of key issues.

Mr Davis said he was ‘encouraged by progress’ on key issues

Mr Davis said he was ‘encouraged by progress’ on key issues. EPA photo

The pair will now hold the first meeting on ‘UK soil’, over a lunch of Scottish scallops and British lamb to round off this week’s round of gruelling talks.

However the mood may be frosty after Mr Barnier took a swipe at the British side – telling reporters there are still “fundamental” disagreements between the two sides.

The EU’s chief negotiator said there had been some areas of agreement about how Brits living abroad and EU nationals living in the UK should be treated after Brexit.

But he said Brussels believed citizens’ rights should be backed by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

And there still appears to be a lot of tension surrounding any costs to be paid by the UK when it exits the bloc.

Mr Barnier said: “A clarification of the UK position is indispensable for us to negotiate and for us to make sufficient progress on this financial dossier, which is inseparable from the other withdrawal dossiers.

The pair are now off to have lunch but the mood may be frosty

The pair are now off to have lunch but the mood may be frosty

“What we want – and we are working on this – is an orderly withdrawal for the United Kingdom, that’s decided.

“An orderly withdrawal means accounts must be settled. We know that agreement will not be achieved through incremental steps.”

In a rebuke to the UK’s preparation ahead of the meeting he added: “As soon as the UK is ready to clarify the nature of its commitments, we will be prepared to discuss this with the British negotiators.”

He said the first round of talks had been about organisation, this week had been about presentation – the “third round must be about clarification”.

And the Brussels chief added: “We require this clarification on the financial settlement, on citizens’ rights, on Ireland – with the two key points of the common travel area and the Good Friday Agreement – and the other separation issues where this week’s experience has quite simply shown we make better progress where our respective positions are clear.”

But the UK is understood to think the EU team are being unclear on what they believe the legal obligations are over the divorce bill as well, with frustration on both sides.

But Mr Davis struck a more optimistic tone following the four days of talks

But Mr Davis struck a more optimistic tone following the four days of talks

And Mr Davis struck a more optimistic tone, saying: “Overall I’m encouraged by the progress we have made on understanding each other’s positions.”

He said the talks had demonstrated the UK had made a “fair and serious offer” on citizens’ rights and there were “many concrete areas where we agree, as well as areas where there will be further discussion” which will be a priority in the next round.

On the financial settlement, Mr Davis said: “We both recognise the importance of sorting out the obligations we have to one another, both legally and in a spirit of mutual cooperation.”

In a sign of the difficulties in reaching agreement he added: “We have had robust but constructive talks this week.

“Clearly there’s a lot left to talk about and further work before we can resolve this.

Mr Davis was criticised for appearing unprepared in this photo

Mr Davis was criticised for appearing unprepared in this photo

“Ultimately getting to a solution will require flexibility from both sides.”

But Mr Barnier the EU was not ready to compromise in the negotiations until the UK accepts its financial obligations.

He said: “I know one has to compromise in negotiations but we are not there yet.

“When I say, and I think I was very clear and transparent about that, that there are things that are inseparable from others.

“That’s the financial settlement, let’s be very clear. We want clarity on that because we need to be able work more until we come to areas of compromise.”

The p[air gave a joint press conference but struck very different tones

The pair gave a joint press conference but struck very different tones. Reuters photo

Underlining his position on the “fundamental importance” of citizens’ rights being protected by EU law and the ECJ, Mr Barnier said: “This is not a political point we are making, it’s a legal one.

“Simply, if there is to be continuity of EU law, that has to be framed by case law of the court. Only the court can interpret EU law.

“It’s not a choice, it’s an obligation.”

The pair are now heading to the home of Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s permanent representative in Brussels.

And given the 19th century terraced house overlooking the Parc Royal in the heart of the Belgian capital comes under British jurisdiction – the meeting will be the first on ‘UK soil’.

https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4058219/david-davis-and-michel-barnier-will-hold-first-the-brexit-talks-on-uk-soil-over-a-lunch-of-scottish-scallops-and-british-lamb-today/

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Britain’s Brexit minister David Davis. Photo by Jack Taylor — Getty Images

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