Davis leads army of bureaucrats into EU lair
BRITAIN deployed nearly a 100 negotiators to Brussels yesterday in a bureaucratic show of force that saw our Brexit negotiating team outnumber their EU counterparts two-to-one.
After months of goading from the European Union that the UK was failing to fully engage, the 98-strong team of officials from across Whitehall arrived for the first substantive face-toface talks at the European Commission.
The deployment was lost in the main image of the opening day of talks, however, after David Davis and Olivier Robbins, the UK’S top Brexit officials, were photographed facing Michel Barnier in a meeting room but without any documents. Taken minutes before Mr Davis jetted back to London for a Parliamentary vote, the EU’S top negotiators struck stern expressions behind their thick sheaves of paper, while the British team grinned for the camera but with their side of the table empty.
The image provoked a deluge of comment on social media about the lack of preparedness for the talks. UK staff later insisted the photo was taken before they had unpacked their bags.
“We have less than 20 months of Brexit talks left, yet David Davis has skulked back to the UK after just half a day,” said Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman. “He didn’t have any position papers with him because this government has no agreed Brexit position.”
Labour was also critical of Mr Davis who spent less than three hours in Brussels, including a one-to-one meeting with Mr Barnier to discuss the objectives of the week, which officials described as “friendly”. “Mr Davis can hardly say this is the time ‘to get down to business’ and then spend only a few minutes in Brussels before heading back to Whitehall,” said Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary.
Before the British negotiators got down to business, starting with a “line by line” rebuttal of the EU’S demand for a gross €100 billion financial settlement, they were given a rousing pep talk by Mr Robbins.
“Ollie was very clear. ‘This is the biggest thing any of you will ever do in your career’, he said. ‘So let’s get it right’,” reported a source who was present. Mr Davis’s returned to London to vote on a Private Members’ Bill in the Commons, which provided a reminder of the Government’s precarious majority. Labour has promised to double the number of such Bills in this Parliament.
The Brexit talks will this week centre on the three major issues: EU citizens’ rights, the border with Ireland and the so-called Brexit Bill.
Mr Barnier has said “sufficient progress” must be made on these three dossiers in order to progress on to talks over trade and the future EU-UK relationship. Sources on the UK side expect the most difficult of these to be money, with British negotiators refusing to discuss what Britain might pay until the European side explains the legal rationale for demands the UK side considers outlandish.
Across town, meanwhile, Boris Johnson was attending a meeting of EU foreign ministers, taking time out to josh with Anders Samuelsen, his Danish counterpart, about the prospect for trade after Brexit, after the Danish foreign minister arrived in a camper van from which he intends to follow the Tour de France cycle race this summer.
Document-less David Davis, right, across the table from EU counterpart Michel Barnier – Mr Davis flew back home after three hours