The UK says it has EU right where it wants it.
By Charlie Cooper
July 20, 2017
The U.K.’s performance in the first substantive round of Brexit negotiations this week got panned in Brussels and back home in London.
But British negotiators insist they have the EU right where they want it — and are confident in their approach, the criticism notwithstanding.
To be sure, the optics and public messaging out of Brussels hasn’t been good for the U.K. Approaching the end of this round, a narrative emerged that Britain came unprepared, one that was encapsulated by an image of U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis and his team casually seated at the negotiating table Monday with no briefing papers. Across the table, the EU negotiators sat ready to consult thick wads of notes.
Within hours, Davis hopped on the Eurostar back to London, a return trip that was planned beforehand but one that did nothing to counter the perception created by a weekend of cabinet infighting at home. By Tuesday Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, was accusing the British team of a lack of seriousness, threatening to stall the talks unless the U.K. shaped up.
“There is the feeling that the EU is getting their excuses in early for when negotiations get difficult: ‘The Brits were unprepared’,” said one individual familiar with senior level thinking on the U.K. team. “Is that narrative frustrating? Yes, but most people on the British side are big enough and ugly enough to know this is the kind of thing that happens in a negotiation.”
Far from rethinking their approach, the British team heads into the final day of this week’s talks sounding sanguine. They even say the official picture shows off their smarts: The lack of papers was intentional, designed to avoid giving paparazzi a scoop by snatching a photo of unsuspecting officials carrying notes on their way into the negotiation room.
When it comes to the meat of discussions themselves, British negotiators say they wanted to get a clearer view into Brussels’ position on financial obligations and give the Commission confidence that the U.K. will honor them. They’re now arguing over the size of the bill.
“There is confidence that they understand this is now a question of categorizing obligations and quantifying them,” said an individual familiar with the British position. This has long been the British view, but negative noises from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (who told Brussels it could “go whistle” over the so-called Brexit bill) and political instability in Westminster had alarmed EU negotiators. Now, the Europeans are reassured, the person insisted.
EU officials, though, continued to insist they were frustrated by the U.K.’s refusal to produce a formal counterproposal to the bloc’s estimate of the divorce bill.
Former Brexit Minister and Vote Leave campaigner David Jones said in an interview that the U.K. is holding better cards in the talks than the EU side appears to give them credit for.
Jones, who until shortly after the June 8 election was part of the team preparing the U.K.’s negotiating plan, pointed out that a no-deal scenario would hurt the EU too because the U.K. could leave without being subject to EU treaties, “which of course include us making payments.”
“Bear in mind they are at the moment getting over £10 billion per annum net from the U.K., which they are going to be concerned about … It’s a significant sum and I know that particularly some of the smaller EU nations are concerned about this,” he said.
The threats from the EU side that Barnier is prepared to stall talks if the U.K. does not engage properly on the issue of its Brexit bill were empty, Jones insisted.
“What we did from a standing start over a period of 12 months is quite remarkable,” he said. Despite being sacked from the Department for Exiting the European Union after the election, Jones said he is convinced his former colleagues have this thing under control. “We assembled a really high caliber team of officials there who had a wide range of expertise — former ambassadors and high commissioners — the best I’ve seen anywhere,” Jones said.
“No regrets at all. Delighted. Seriously, delighted.”
Jones said the British team was strong, naming former ambassador to Brazil and an ex-member of Jose Manuel Barrosso’s European Commission office, Alex Ellis, and former High Commissioner to Singapore, Anthony Phillipson.
The Brexit department has more than 450 staff and sent more than 90 officials to Brussels this week, outnumbering EU officials two-to-one — leading U.K. journalists to joke that the whole thing was being seen by some in Britain as a Nelson-era naval battle.
The belief that second thoughts are emerging in the U.K. about Brexit gained momentum earlier this month when the former campaign director of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings, admitted on Twitter that there are “some possible branches of the future” in which “leaving will be an error.”
Cummings, a former adviser to the recently reinstated cabinet minister Michael Gove, has been a long-term critic of the government’s approach to Brexit. In the same Twitter exchange he said that without a change at the top, the Brexit talks would be a “guaranteed debacle” and delighted many Remainers this week when he described Davis as “thick as mince, lazy as a toad.”
Cummings’ statements reflect his concern that the process will be hijacked by the civil service, with Davis as their stooge, rather than a genuine attack of nerves among Leavers. But it has reinforced the perception of a British negotiating team that’s underpowered for the scale of the task, and crucially, left rudderless by political turmoil at home.
The EU has its own problems standing in the way of quick progress, according to British officials.
From their standpoint, the main concern is that their EU interlocutors will be constrained by the demands of 27 national capitals. “There is a worry about how they are going to negotiate flexibly when they have to manage demands, including on the financial obligations, of 27 member states,” one person familiar with the U.K position said.
One U.K. government official familiar with the progress of talks was clear that the Brits will not be bounced into rushing out a proposal on the Brexit bill. “Our negotiating papers are entirely within our control,” the official said. “We’ll set out our position papers when we set them out.” The British are, as Davis made clear they would, challenging the EU’s proposals before they make their own.
Jones told POLITICO he had “no doubt at all” that “broad calculations” of the Brexit bill had been made by Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). But added: “You have to be in receipt of the bill or at least the methodology leading to the calculation of the bill. When I was there, that was never communicated to DExEU … you can’t do it in a vacuum, you’ve got to know what they’re asking for.”
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