Clock is ticking to March 2019
being too rigid and making unrealistic demands that trade is off the table. But there is some flexibility: trade talks can begin after “sufficient progress” on the divorce, a judgment EU leaders will make, in October or December, depending on progress. If the UK passes the – deliberately ambiguous – “sufficient progress” test, talks can move on to trade and other areas. Both sides say they are prioritising a rapid agreement on citizens’ rights to bring certainty for 3.5m EU nationals in the UK and 1.2m Britons on the continent. But consensus is deceptive: the EU is insisting the European court of justice be the ultimate arbiter in resolving disputes on citizens’ rights, in theory extending the writ of the European court over the UK for a century. This role for the ECJ would prove toxic for hardline Brexiters and is even controversial for some European jurists. The EU also wants detailed guarantees on citizens’ rights, allowing people to live their lives as if Brexit never happened. Inevitably, there will be sound and fury over the Brexit bill. Various numbers have been mooted: €40bn (£35bn), €60bn (£53bn) net total, with a €100bn (£88bn) gross total grabbing the most headlines. For now, the EU does not have a final number but rather a range of scenarios.
The UK could even keep EU payments, such as farm subsidies, for two years, if it agreed to pay into the budget during that time. Negotiators hope that by concentrating on the technicalities first, naming a number later, the final bill will be an easier sell for the British PM, because it can be presented as the price of a new deal. But the clearer the methodology, the easier it will be to do the maths, the bigger the political storm.
The Irish border is a fraught issue and neither side has advanced detailed ideas in public on how to achieve the shared aim of avoiding a hard border. The EU expects to discuss a transition deal at a late stage in Brexit talks, possibly August 2018. The biggest uncertainty is an unstable UK government, but the Brexit clock will not stop for another election, even if formal talks are suspended. The best British negotiators could hope for would be a few weeks’ extension in March 2019. But the EU will insist the UK is gone before European elections in May-June 2019.