Fragile Tories warned over ‘brutal Brexit’
May’s slim grasp on power means UK more likely to crash out without deal
European leaders fear Theresa May’s government is too fragile to negotiate viable terms on which to leave the union, meaning the discussions that officially begin today could end in a “brutal Brexit” under which talks collapse without any deal.
As officials began to gather in Brussels last night, the long-awaited start of negotiations was overshadowed by political chaos in Westminster, where the chancellor, Philip Hammond, warned that failing to strike a deal would be “a very, very bad outcome”.
The EU side fears that in reality the British government will struggle to maintain any position without falling apart in the coming weeks and months, because without support from the Democratic Unionist party, May’s negotiating hand is limited. There are also concerns that any DUP backing to give May a Commons majority would come with strings attached.
Hammond has been urged to publish the costs of any deals made with the DUP to prop up the government. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has raised concerns over reports that the DUP wants to end airport tax on visitors to Northern Ireland, which generated about £90m in 2015-16 according to estimates by HM Revenue & Customs. Abolishing air passenger duty is one of the DUP’s key demands, as it puts Northern Ireland at a disadvantage compared with the Republic of Ireland, where the duty has been abolished.
As well as concern over any terms agreed with the DUP, May will have to assuage fears from Ireland’s new prime minister, Leo Varadkar, when she meets him in Downing Street today that Brexit will infringe on the rights of people in Ireland. The taoiseach will also raise the impact of any Tory-DUP deal on power sharing in Northern Ireland.
The prime minister has said she is confident of getting the Queen’s speech through the Commons, regardless of whether a deal is reached with the DUP by the time of the state opening of parliament on Wednesday.
British Brexit negotiators are hoping to shore up confidence in their hardline approach to the start of talks by making early progress on the vexed question of citizens’ rights. The Brexit secretary, David Davis, is determined to demonstrate his take-it-or-leave-it approach to the two-year article 50 process is still on track and is understood to be willing to make concessions on citizens’ rights to help the process get off to a credible start.
“We want both sides to emerge strong and prosperous, capable of projecting our shared European values, leading in the world, and demonstrating our resolve to protect the security of our citizens,” the secretary of state for leaving the EU is expected to tell his counterparts. “I want to reiterate at the outset of these talks that the UK will remain a committed partner and ally of our friends across the continent.”
British officials have already conceded to EU demands for a ministerial presence to show they have political support for the planned monthly cycle of meetings, although the first session is due to last just one day. While the British hope for an early win on citizens’ rights, EU sources said today’s agenda would mainly be focused on “talks about talks”, agreeing the logistics of Brexit negotiations rather than details. The UK had hoped officials could sort out these questions, but bowed to EU pressure that a person with a government mandate lead talks.
Facing Davis at the European commission’s star-shaped headquarters will be the senior French politician Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator. The two men got to know each other when they served as Europe ministers in the mid 1990s. They have met only once since the referendum, in what the EU side described as a 30-minute “courtesy coffee” when Davis made an under-the-radar trip to Brussels last November. Talks will get under way at 10am UK