LONDON • Britain and the European Union (EU) are at odds over how soon the Brexit talks can pivot toward a trade deal as Theresa May’s government seeks to turn on the pressure by disclosing more policy details.
The UK government will publish five positions papers this week, with two dropping yesterday. The one that examined the treatment of goods said that Britain wants the “freest and most frictionless trade possible” and warned “it is in no-one’s interest to see disruption and uncertainty”. The other called for a reciprocal agreement on confidentiality and the handling of information.
Britain wants to ensure goods placed on the market before exit day can continue to be sold in the UK and EU afterward, one nine-page paper said. To avoid repeated compliance checks, the UK also proposed products that received approval before Brexit would still be valid afterward.
Just a week before negotiations are set to resume, the UK has adopted a provocative posture to shift the discussions away from the terms of separation as soon as October. May’s spokeswoman Alison Donnelly said yesterday that “both sides need to demonstrate a dynamic and flexible approach”.
The use of fighting words in the past has not budged the EU and, in a sign the UK will be disappointed again, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar told the Guardian newspaper that “the process will definitely take more time than we expected”.
Seeds of Discontent
Signs of fresh discord may unnerve investors after the pound last week underperformed all of its Group of 10 counterparts. By spelling out its demands, the UK wants to change the narrative that it’s been too vague and by doing so jolt the EU into talking trade sooner.
But that goal is unlikely to be achieved in the upcoming rounds of talks and “unsurpri– singly, Brussels is insisting that the divorce must be settled first”, wrote Mujtaba Rahman, European MD of Eurasia Group.
With the clock ticking down to the UK’s March 2019 departure, and the two sides clashing over many key issues, Brexit secretary David Davis seems bent on reviving a debate over whether talks should run in parallel rather than in the strict order the EU has laid out.
Such an ambition will draw short shrift from the EU. Its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, reiterated last week that the other 27 governments won’t allow trade talks to start until “sufficient progress” has been made resolving residency rights, the UK’s exit bill and the border with Ireland.
The original hope was to reach this milestone in October — in time for a summit of EU leaders — but that is now in doubt amid criticism within the EU of sluggish progress and a lack of detail from the British.
Schedule Thrown Off
“There are so many difficult topics on the table, difficult issues there, that one cannot expect all those issues will be solved according to the schedule made in the first place,” Slovenia’s Cerar told the Guardian. “What is important now is that the three basic issues are solved in reasonable time.”
Having once predicted differences over the timetable would prove the “row of the summer”, Davis backtracked in June by appearing to sign on to the EU’s preferred plan. But writing in the Sunday Times, he insisted it would be helpful “to run aspects of the negotiations twice”, pointing to Northern Ireland as an issue where the divorce and commerce are intertwined.
“It is simply not possible to reach a near-final agreement on the border issue until we’ve begun to talk about how our broader future customs arrangements will work,” he wrote. “Furthermore, if we get the comprehensive free trade agreement we’re seeking as part of our future partnership, solutions in Northern Ireland are easier to deliver.”
This more combative approach was criticised by anti-Brexit campaigners as casting doubt on the government’s ability to conduct negotiations.
“To be now, a couple of months down the line, trying to reopen the issue reeks of desperation at an approaching economic storm and a Cabinet who don’t have a clue,” said Liberal Democrat lawmaker Tom Brake, who speaks for the party on Brexit.
The UK outlined its position last week on future customs arrangements, only for Barnier to tweet that the quicker an agreement was found on the breakup topics “the quicker we can discuss customs and future relationship”.
Later in the week, documents dealing with data protection, judicial cooperation and resolving post-Brexit disputes will come out. The latter will prove the most contentious given May has made escaping oversight of European courts a red line while the EU sees a continued role for the European Court of Justice.
One of these papers will suggest establishing a new court to oversee post-Brexit relations between the UK and the EU, looking at precedents such as European Free Trade Association court, the Financial Times reported. Davis will set out options on the judicial regime sought by the UK, including trade, security and citizens’ rights. — Bloomberg