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Britain is the party holding Brexit talks back

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Britain is the party holding Brexit talks back

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Brexit

Britain is the party holding Brexit talks back

Negotiations have still not moved on to discussing a post-Brexit transition period

UK Prime Minister Theresa and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker at their meeting in Brussels on Monday © AP

Much of the British commentariat has jumped on one word in the terse statement issued after the dinner between European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and UK prime minister Theresa May, which said they “reviewed the progress made in the Article 50 negotiations so far and agreed that these efforts should accelerate over the months to come”.

In the UK, “accelerate” is bizarrely taken to mean that May has convinced Juncker that the EU should speed things up. That fits into a narrative, promoted by Brexiters, that the EU is holding things back.

The reality is the opposite. The fact that negotiations have still not moved on to discussing a post-Brexit transition period, let alone the future trading relationship, is almost entirely Britain’s fault.

First, the UK accepted the EU’s desired sequencing of negotiations. The EU had a good reason for this, albeit one that has not dawned on the UK side: the British decision to leave is legitimate but has caused a lot of immediate problems that it is imperative to resolve before anything else. If Britain now regrets that it agreed to this sequencing, it only has itself to blame. (This follows a pattern of British influence in Europe, where it has, more often than not, got its way but then disowned its good work. This is true for the single market and enlargement to the east, including free movement of its workers, which were all UK policy priorities.)

Second, UK politicians often make the legalistic point that Article 50, which governs the exit negotiations, states that the “framework” for the future relationship should be taken into account. But the basic framework has been clear since the prime minister’s Lancaster House speech: the UK will put itself at a significant economic distance from the EU, ultimately being in neither a customs union nor a regulatory union with the bloc. Or as her colleagues more simplistically repeat ad nauseam, Britain will take control of its money, its borders and its laws. Those plans give the EU plenty of reasons to ensure that Britain does not use that control in ways that harm EU citizens and their livelihoods, nor peace in Ireland. That is what the first phase aims to secure.

Third, the UK does not always seem to negotiate in good faith, or indeed negotiate at all. Only on citizens’ rights has there been a proper negotiation where positions have been clearly and concretely specified and efforts made to whittle down differences between the parties. As the commission’s excellent visual guide to the evolving positions shows, however, there remain questions to resolve. (It also contradicts quotes in the Times alleging that the ball is entirely in the EU’s court on this issue.) But May is correct to suggest that agreement is within sight.

At the same time, however, the EU has good reason to doubt the UK’s sincerity on these issue as long as the Home Office keeps violating the free movement rights of EU citizens and their families, whether through mistakes or through malice.

And in the other two portfolios, the UK is simply failing to engage. There remains a fundamental contradiction between the UK’s stated commitment to avoid a physical border on the island of Ireland and its stated commitment not to be in a customs union or regulatory union with the EU in the future. Kevin O’Rourke has usefully outlined the sort of thing UK officialdom must say to recognise, let alone resolve, this contradiction. Until it does, neither statement can be taken as the UK’s actual position.

The same is true for the financial issue. The UK side seems to think that May’s pledge in Florence means the EU must now give something. “I do not want our partners to fear that they will need to pay more or receive less over the remainder of the current budget plan,” she said, which amounts to standing by the UK’s £20bn or so share of remaining net contributions to the EU’s seven-year budget after Brexit.

But the prime minister also said: “The UK will honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership.” Agreeing on what those commitments are is precisely what the current negotiations are for, and which the EU has asked for from the start. But the UK has refused to state a position on what those commitments encompass.

The EU has made clear that no sum total needs to be agreed before moving on to the next phase of negotiations, only that a common view begins to be negotiated on what needs to be covered, leaving calculations of amounts for later. But this is being stalled by the British refusal to spell out what commitments May was referring to. (Meanwhile, the EU’s position is stated in its public negotiating directives, part III.2.)

And behind it all, leading officials have cast doubt on the UK’s ultimate willingness to honour those commitments no matter what May says. No lesser figure than the foreign secretary Boris Johnson told the UK parliament the EU could “go whistle”. If the British side thinks the EU should simply ignore such noises because “Boris is Boris”, the UK has ceased to be a serious country.

The bottom line is that “efforts should be accelerated” simply means “the UK should start negotiating in earnest”. Who knows whether Juncker’s team realised the phrase would be used to suggest the opposite in the UK debate and accepted this consequence or did not foresee it?

Either way, by perpetuating or even worsening British misconceptions about the Brexit negotiations, it will make constructive progress less, rather than more, likely.

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