Frus­trated EU fears Bri­tain is ‘head­ing for the Brexit rocks’

The Guardian Australia - - World News / Opinion - Daniel Bof­fey in Stras­bourg

On Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, with Jean Claude Juncker’s state of the union speech call­ing for swifter, deeper in­te­gra­tion still ringing in their ears, a gag­gle of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in the Euro­pean par­lia­ment met in a room op­po­site the cham­ber in Stras­bourg.

In the ap­po­sitely named Salle de Mar­garet Thatcher, Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt, the colour­ful former Bel­gian prime min­is­ter who is co­or­di­nat­ing MEPs’ re­sponse to Brexit, dis­cussed with col­leagues from the pro-Euro­pean po­lit­i­cal par­ties on the par­lia­ment’s Brexit steer­ing group how they should re­spond to the seem­ing stale­mate in the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions. The lat­est draft of a par­lia­men­tary res­o­lu­tion was dis­cussed, lament­ing the fail­ure of the talks to de­velop on the key open­ing is­sues – cit­i­zens’ rights, the Ir­ish bor­der and the fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment.

The res­o­lu­tion is set to ad­vise the mem­ber states’ lead­ers, who will make the big de­ci­sion at a sum­mit in Brus­sels on 19-20 Oc­to­ber, that the ne­go­ti­a­tions can­not move on to trade as things stand. “The talk at the meet­ing was mainly about when to hold a vote on it in the par­lia­ment,” an EU of­fi­cial said. “They want to have it on 3 Oc­to­ber – the day be­fore Theresa May makes her speech to Tory con­fer­ence. They want the Tory del­e­gates to hear about it.”

The public rep­ri­mand for the prime min­is­ter at a sen­si­tive point in the po­lit­i­cal cal­en­dar isn’t just about grand­stand­ing from the MEPs. Her gov­ern­ment’s of­fers on cit­i­zens’ rights and the Ir­ish bor­der, along with a lack of of­fer on the fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment, has gen­uinely con­cerned se­nior fig­ures within the Euro­pean com­mis­sion lead­ing the ne­go­ti­a­tions and among the mem­ber states.

On cit­i­zens’ rights, the of­fer to give EU na­tion­als the same rights as Bri­tish cit­i­zens would leave them with fewer rights than to­day. The so­lu­tions pro­posed in Ireland, in­volv­ing the sus­pen­sion of the nor­mal bor­der checks one would ex­pect for a coun­try out­side the EU’s cus­toms union and sin­gle mar­ket, have been re­jected al­most out of hand by the com­mis­sion, as an af­front to the le­gal or­der. And on the fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment – per­haps the big­gest stum­bling block – the EU’s chief ne­go­tia­tor has ques­tioned whether Brus­sels can re­ally trust the Bri­tish on any­thing, given Down­ing Street’s re­luc­tance to ad­mit Bri­tain has a le­gal duty to live up to the spend­ing com­mit­ments al­ready made by the EU.

Mean­while, the Bri­tish claim they can’t make progress on the Ir­ish bor­der or divorce bill un­less they know what their re­la­tion­ship with the EU will be af­ter 29 March 2019, when the UK leaves the bloc. That newly minted ar­gu­ment has par­tic­u­larly riled the com­mis­sion, given that it was thought the Bri­tish had ac­cepted the idea of se­quenced talks, with the trad­ing re­la­tion­ship to be dis­cussed once “suf­fi­cient progress” had been made on the key open­ing is­sues, as en­shrined in ar­ti­cle 50 guide­lines agreed by the EU lead­ers in April. Just to add in­sult to in­jury, the De­part­ment for Ex­it­ing the EU has let it be known that a de­lay to the next round of talks, al­low­ing the prime min­is­ter to make her ma­jor speech in Florence on Thurs­day, will per­mit EU lead­ers time to per­suade Barnier to be more flex­i­ble in the fourth round of talks, which be­gin a few days later. There is a sus­pi­cion that the Bri­tish also be­lieve that once An­gela Merkel is re-elected as Ger­many’s chan­cel­lor this month, she will have po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal to ex­pend on mak­ing things hap­pen.

And now there is the un­wel­come reap­pear­ance on the Brexit bat­tle­field of Boris John­son, with his in­sis­tence that the UK will suc­ceed “might­ily” as a low-reg­u­la­tion econ­omy, no longer pay­ing into the EU bud­get af­ter March 2019. Speak­ing to the Ob­server, the leader of the so­cial­ist bloc, Gianni Pit­tella, fumed: “Boris John­son is em­bar­rass­ing his coun­try once again by re­peat­ing the lies of the Leave cam­paign. He is jeop­ar­dis­ing the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions by threat­en­ing to turn the UK into a low-reg­u­la­tion econ­omy. And he in­sults the in­tel­li­gence of the Bri­tish peo­ple with his tub-thump­ing jin­go­ism. It is more in keep­ing with Trump Tower than White­hall.”

The Ital­ian MEP, echo­ing the thoughts of many in the Euro­pean com­mis­sion, added: “This ap­pears to be yet an­other twist in the in­ter­nal war­fare within the Con­ser­va­tive party. It does the UK no credit and no ser­vice in the wider world. I fear the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment is head­ing to­wards the Brexit rocks.”

Gun­tram Wolff, a former ad­viser to the French gov­ern­ment, and di­rec­tor of the Bruegel think­tank, said there were grounds for con­cern. “Things are be­ing lost in trans­la­tion – it’s a mat­ter of learn­ing to talk to each other,” he said. “I would never un­der­es­ti­mate the im­por­tance of process and the le­gal frame­work for the ne­go­ti­a­tions to the EU,” he added. “For bet­ter or worse, that is how the EU works. Be­cause they are a col­lec­tive en­tity of 27 mem­ber states, the EU can’t – or it is very dif­fi­cult to – go be­yond [what has been agreed al­ready].

“The idea that we will have the white knight of An­gela Merkel rid­ing in and de­liv­er­ing a great com­pro­mise doesn’t re­ally work if the process isn’t be­ing fol­lowed. And will she want to spend po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal on Brexit? I think only if she thinks a deal is re­al­is­tic and the ground­work is there.”

For those within Europe who want a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial deal to be struck, and that would in­clude most but per­haps not all in Brus­sels, the brevity of the men­tion of Bri­tain’s de­par­ture in Juncker’s speech last week was an ad­di­tional cause for con­cern. In a speech de­signed to kick­start a new chap­ter for the EU, Juncker told MEPs that, as much as he would al­ways re­gret the UK’s de­ci­sion last June, the is­sue was not the “be all and end all”. Brexit was not “Europe’s fu­ture”, and the con­ti­nent, now open­ing trade ne­go­ti­a­tions with Aus­tralia and New Zealand, would move on.

An­drius Ku­bil­ius, a former prime min­is­ter of Lithua­nia, who sits on his coun­try’s Brexit com­mit­tee, ad­mit­ted it was not a good omen. “I am in some ways less op­ti­mistic than I was,” he said. “Sev­eral months ago get­ting a deal with Bri­tain ap­peared to be the most im­por­tant thing we needed to get done. It doesn’t feel like that any more.”

Mairead McGuin­ness, an Ir­ish MEP and vice-pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean par­lia­ment, who met Barnier last week, said she didn’t be­lieve the talks were quite at a dead­lock, but that the ne­go­ti­a­tions did re­quire an in­jec­tion of ur­gency.

“It is more slug­gish than we would like it to be,” McGuin­ness said. “I think from the EU side the time­line needs to be re­spected. It seems at some point [the Bri­tish] de­cided, for­get what we agreed and we will talk with the mem­ber states. But that’s not pos­si­ble. We would like to hear her say that she will do as agreed, and make progress on the three open­ing is­sues. And it seems there has been less move­ment on money than the other two.”

In­deed, it is hard to get away from the sus­pi­cion that money is the key to it all. A va­ri­ety of fig­ures for Bri­tain’s divorce bill have been pub­lished in the press, some cer­tainly em­a­nat­ing from meet­ings of diplo­mats and of­fi­cials in the EU’s Ber­lay­mont head­quar­ters. But, in truth, the EU is no keener than Bri­tain, at this stage, for fig­ures to be aired, whether closer to €30bn or €100bn, given the sen­si­tiv­i­ties in Euro­pean cap­i­tals, whether they be net re­cip­i­ents or con­trib­u­tors.

How­ever, the EU27 do want greater con­fi­dence that the UK is not go­ing to leave them with a giant hole in their fi­nances in the im­me­di­ate years af­ter Brexit, said Vasco Cal, a former eco­nomic ad­viser in the com­mis­sion.

“What­ever Bri­tain fails to pay, Ger­many will have to pay,” said Cal. “I think the UK is look­ing to hold out on an of­fer of money un­til the end, when they will agree to pay for their com­mit­ments made in the past but not for ac­cess to the in­ter­nal mar­ket dur­ing the tran­si­tion pe­riod. The idea be­ing that there will be so much re­lief among the EU that it will be ac­cepted. It’s a gam­ble, of course. It could go wrong.”

Bri­tish Sec­re­tary of State for Ex­it­ing the Euro­pean UnionDavid Davis and EU chief Brexit ne­go­tia­tor Michel Barnier ad­dress the me­dia af­ter the third round of Brexit talks. Pho­to­graph: Em­manuel Du­nand/AFP/Getty Images

Ver­hof­s­tadt: co­or­di­nat­ing MEPs’ re­sponse to Brexit. Pho­to­graph: Stephanie Le­cocq/EPA

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