This week, Brexit is going to get technical.
With no major political breakthroughs expected, Brussels and London are looking to the fifth round of negotiations, which start this afternoon, to drill into specific details on citizens’ rights and Ireland, EU diplomats said.
Top of their agenda: How U.K. courts will take into account the opinions of the European Court of Justice once Britain leaves the bloc, and further clarification on the “unique” status of the Irish border.
Experts from both teams will try to achieve some progress on finding a “unique solution” for the Irish border that would take account of the history of the conflict, and the need to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement. For these reasons, other models, like the border controls between Norway and Sweden, are not applicable.
Officials in Brussels are also expecting London to come forward this week with “significant progress” on questions surrounding the role of ECJ case law, and whether U.K. courts will be obliged to follow judgments from the Luxembourg court.
The scaled-back goals reflect the conclusion by EU and U.K. negotiators that it is impossible to achieve “sufficient progress” on the three major divorce issues before EU leaders meet in Brussels next week — the requirement set by the European Council for moving to a second phase of talks focused on a transition period.
One clear sign of the low expectations for this round is that for the first time since negotiations started in July there will be no opening press statement by the top negotiators, Michel Barnier and David Davis. Indeed, Davis was not even expected in Brussels on Monday.
A senior EU diplomat said he believed only the U.K.’s team on citizens will participate in the negotiations this week.
“This round is not about sufficient progress, it’s about reaching the Council in good shape,” said another senior EU diplomat. “The Brits also understand this. They say this implicitly in talks with us. ‘We know it looks difficult,’ they say.
“We hope the U.K. puts more on the table, they said they will do so on citizens and on Ireland, but not on the financial settlement,” the diplomat added.
With the decision on “sufficient progress” now expected at the European Council meeting in December, EU officials once again stressed the unity of the 27 in insisting on the divorce terms. And Danish officials denied a report in the Guardian that suggested they were pushing for the EU to move more quickly in the negotiations.
Among the principal obstacles to “sufficient progress” is the continuing stalemate over the U.K.’s financial obligations to the EU. Brussels has demanded that the U.K. move beyond Prime Minister Theresa May’s promise to keep whole the EU’s current long-term budget, and also agree to a methodology for determining accrued obligations that will last well beyond Britain’s departure date. London, however, wants greater clarity about its future relationship before giving any more ground on the financial settlement.
EU negotiators and diplomats have voiced increasing dismay in recent days over the continuing lack of clarity around many of London’s negotiating positions, as well as the political turmoil surrounding May’s Cabinet.
“We are worried, we see no political strategy and a very unstable government. All Davis has done so far is folklore, it’s time to move to concrete proposals,” said a third senior EU diplomat.
The renewed in-fighting among U.K. Conservatives, and questions about May’s ability to hold on to her post, has even led some in Brussels to feel sorry for May. It is not the first time. Many EU officials had expressed sympathy for her after she lost her majority in the national election in June.
“I’ve seen some pity after May’s Tory congress speech,” said a senior EU official with knowledge of the Brexit talks. “It is pitiful to some member states because she’s bound by party politics.”
“There is a feeling in the EU that the U.K. is in a very difficult position, so many EU countries try to avoid looking at political statements from the British government, but rather to look at what Davis says to Barnier,” this official said. “They seem to be helpless but we shouldn’t seek to profit from that helplessness.”
Some officials said Brussels might try to send a signal to London that it was prepared to move forward by beginning internal discussions about what a transition period and future trade relationship might look like.
That idea was raised at a meeting of EU diplomats last Friday, where one diplomat said “everyone, without any exception, agreed we are far from” sufficient progress.
“The true question for October is to know if the 27 will decide to start to prepare on the future relationship and the transition — internally, and not with the United Kingdom,” the diplomat said. Talks with London on the future relationship “will only be envisaged when real signs of progress are there — on three topics of the first phase, not one out of three, nor two out of three, but the three.”
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