The basis for a Brexit deal is solid. Each side in the negotiation wants something from the other. The EU needs money: that’s to say, payments that will help to offset the €63 billion hole in its budget that it faces from 2020. The UK needs access: in other words, entry to the Single Market on terms as favourable as is possible without being a member.
None the less, there was no reason to expect speedy progress at this week’s talks. The European Commission was always unlikely to signal that it believes wider talks on a deal should begin soon, for three main reasons. First, it is scarcely going to reward Britain early, as it sees it, for plumping for Brexit. Second, its methodology for the talks is very different from our Government’s. And, third, both Britain and the UK are waiting for Angela Merkel – or whoever emerges as Chancellor after Germany’s elections later this month.
She and other EU27 take a less theological view, or so some argue, of the EU negotiating position than the Commission. An optimistic view is that she and they help to break the present impasse by mid-October, when they meet to decide whether “sufficient progress” has been made for talks to switch to trade negotiations. But this is improbable: Michel Barnier is not positioning himself to make such a recommendation to them.
We will all thus probably have to wait until nearer the New Year for any breakthrough. David Davis is not suddenly going to back down, and agree to a procedure that could land Britain with a bill of up to £100 billion. And Barnier is not going to roll over and abandon his methodology. The key lies in that phrase “sufficient progress”. Perhaps the Government will make a specific offer based on its manifesto, “there may be some specific European programmes in which we might want to participate”, the document said.
Or, as has been trailed, maybe it will dress payments up as covering an implementation period, to which our interlocutors will probably agree. At any rate, the New Year will be a better time to make a judgement about the negotiations’ progress than now or October. But even if there is good news in January, that leaves little time for a fully-fledged deal – which, remember, would not simply be about tariffs, but about minimising non-tariff barriers and, crucially, obtaining legal certainty on a mass of issues ranging from security to aviation.
Furthermore, we cannot be sure that all will be well – or as well as can be expected – when the New Year comes. Maybe Merkel and the EU 27 will be less accomodating to Britain than some expect: they agreed Barnier’s negotiating mandate, after all. Perhaps they will want to be helpful for their own commercial and security reasons but, as William Hague warned earlier this week, they and the Commission “go round in circles with no one taking the responsibility for pushing things forward”.
For it is not as though Brexit will top the in-trays of EU member states’ politicians. Yes, all have business and wider reasons to make Brexit a success, as Jean-Claude Juncker would definitely not put it. But they have other matters to worry about, not least Europe’s continuing immigration crisis. The danger is that a deal falls through because the focus of EU27 leaders on the talks is not equivalent to their interest in making them work.
At this point, the British media, this site included, should confess humility. It is brilliantly set-up, aided and abetted by social media, to pore over the finer details of Westminster Village politics. It is not nearly so well-placed, given cutbacks in foreign coverage, to assess what is happening within the EU27, that diverse and pluriform range of nations, let alone between the individual countries and the Commission, not to mention the European Parliament.
Our hunch is that there will probably be a deal, but given all these uncertainties we may well be wrong. However, a question that follows is: what sort of deal? Is it really true that “nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed”? Is it not possible, even likely, that there will be a late scramble to sort out the legal questions, or to try to, but that negotiations about tariffs, say, will not be complete, and will roll on after the spring of 2019?
It is for these reasons that this site has stressed that Theresa May and her team must be ready for all eventualities. The Government has thrown much intellectual and practical energy into the talks: we hope that it is committing at least as much to preparation. For further details, look back at Charlie Elphicke’s five-piece August series on ConservativeHome about being Ready on Day One.