Barnier may seek wrig­gle room; A ‘no deal’ Brexit re­flects cab­i­net split;

Frus­tra­tion of the EU ne­go­tia­tor could ease if EU lead­ers give him en­larged man­date

The Irish Times - - Front Page - Patrick Smyth

The frus­tra­tion of EU chief ne­go­tia­tor Michel Barnier at the Brexit talks press con­fer­ence was clear. On the one hand pla­ca­tory, in in­sist­ing it was wrong to see the ne­go­ti­a­tions on Brexit as be­ing about one side wring­ing “con­ces­sions” out of the other – both share a com­mon pur­pose and ob­jec­tives, he said – he nev­er­the­less was quite pre­pared to use the “im­passe” word and had no prob­lem blam­ing Lon­don.

Barnier made clear that the dead­lock on the UK Brexit “fi­nan­cial settlement” strand of talks, which went nowhere this week, was at­trib­ut­able to the UK drag­ging its heels over putting on pa­per the com­mit­ments en­tered into by prime min­is­ter Theresa May in her Florence speech last month.

“This week . . . the UK told us again that they were not pre­pared to spec­ify these com­mit­ments. There­fore, there hasn’t been any ne­go­ti­a­tions . . . We made do with only tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sions,” he said. “On this ba­sis, I am not ready to pro­pose to the Euro­pean Coun­cil to open ne­go­ti­a­tions on the fu­ture re­la­tion­ship.

“On this ques­tion, we have reached a state of dead­lock, which is very dis­turb­ing,” he added.

It has been clear for at least a cou­ple of weeks that next week’s EU sum­mit would not find it­self able to open the next phase of Brexit talks with the UK. That was ex­plic­itly con­firmed yes­ter­day by Barnier, to the an­noy­ance of UK chief ne­go­tia­tor David Davis, who in vain re­peated his hope they could move on. The ear­li­est he can hope for is De­cem­ber.

But there has been con­sid­er­able talk in Brus­sels about Barnier’s sup­posed will­ing­ness to open up pre­lim­i­nary dis­cus­sion on “tran­si­tion”, the likely two-year pe­riod after for­mal Brexit in March 2019 when the UK is ex­pected to seek to con­tinue to main­tain its rights and obli­ga­tions un­der EU rules

‘‘

I will ex­plore ways to get out of this dead­lock we find our­selves in

to soften the shock of de­par­ture.

Re­ports in the Bri­tish press about last Fri­day’s meet­ing of EU am­bas­sadors sug­gest Barnier wanted to open up dis­cus­sions on the is­sue of “tran­si­tion” ahead of the phase-two dis­cus­sions on the “fu­ture re­la­tion­ship”.

No­tion­ally, tran­si­tion is a phase-two is­sue, and the Ger­mans are re­ported to have op­posed vary­ing the Barnier man­date un­til more UK com­mit­ments are nailed down.

Diplo­matic sources sug­gest Barnier’s in­ten­tions were not as clear-cut – there was no re­buff by am­bas­sadors – and were sim­ply about sug­gest­ing prepara­tory work “scop­ing” the sort of is­sues that could arise in tran­si­tion talks. He said yes­ter­day he re­mained “con­vinced to­day that with po­lit­i­cal will, de­ci­sive progress is within our grasp in the next two months”.

“Slowly but surely over the next few weeks I will ex­plore the way for­ward, if there is the nec­es­sary will – I will ex­plore ways to get out of this dead­lock we find our­selves in.”

Coded hint

The ref­er­ence was taken as a coded hint that he hopes the lead­ers at the sum­mit may give him an en­larged man­date, or at least give the nod to an en­larged in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his man­date.

Among other “di­vorce” is­sues that could be fa­cil­i­tated by a dis­cus­sion on the modal­i­ties of UK tran­si­tion are the fi­nan­cial settlement, on which only the most gen­eral of UK prom­ises have been made so far.

A will­ing­ness to con­tinue con­tribut­ing to the EU bud­get for the tran­si­tion pe­riod on the cur­rent ba­sis could ap­pear to re­duce the dis­puted exit bill by some ¤20 bil­lion, and make it far more palat­able in the UK.

Although also keen to see more Bri­tish com­mit­ments nailed down, there is also some Ir­ish in­ter­est in mov­ing to the next phase of talks, when the really big North-South dif­fi­cul­ties, no­tably the Bor­der and trade, can be be ad­dressed in a prac­ti­cal way. But the Ir­ish are un­der­stood to em­pha­sise the need to let Barnier do it all at his own pace.

We can ex­pect next week’s sum­mit to ac­cept his as­sess­ment of the state of the talks and to put off to De­cem­ber any dis­cus­sion of sec­ond-phase talks. But Barnier will get the wrig­gle room he needs to ex­plore pos­si­bil­i­ties.

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