Tuesday

20th Feb 2018

EU and UK to talk Brexit with different expectations

  • The EU believes it is too soon to talk about specific solutions for the future of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. (Photo: European Commission)

British negotiators will be in Brussels again this week to continue talks on leaving the EU, but they arrive with different expectations than their hosts who are representing the 27 EU member states that will remain in the bloc.

“For the UK, the week ahead is about driving forward the technical discussions across all the issues,” Brexit secretary David Davis will say on Monday (28 August), according to a statement shared with the British press.

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The EU-27 side, however, is still looking to hear further details from the UK on what it wants politically out of Brexit.

“The technical cannot outpace the political,” a senior EU official told reporters on the condition of anonymity.

An example of where the EU believes it is too soon to talk about specific solutions, is the future of the border between Northern Ireland, part of the UK, and Ireland, which will remain part of the EU.

“We are not yet there in terms of political debate,” the official said.

She referred to a UK position paper on Northern Ireland, published 21 August, in which the UK said the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland should be “as seamless and frictionless as possible”.

But the paper contained, in the words of the EU official, “a lot of magical thinking about how an invisible border could work in the future”.

“This is not the moment to discuss technical let alone technological solutions. … It's too early to get into that territory because the substance isn't there yet,” she said.

Meanwhile, Davis is expected on Monday to repeat that “flexibility and imagination” is needed “from both sides”.

“We want to lock in the points where we agree, unpick the areas where we disagree, and make further progress on a range of issues,” Davis' prepared statement said.

Aside Northern Ireland, many other topics will feature on the agenda, including how the UK should disentangle itself from the European Investment Bank (EIB), in which it is one of the four largest shareholders.

The EIB has granted loans that are backed by member states' guarantees, which have a longer lifetime than March 2019 - the month the UK is expected to leave the EU.

However, the big elephant in the room is the overall financial bill, which will not be discussed in-depth this week.

"We are not looking at a number now," the EU source said. "I would not like to get your hopes up that we will see a breakthrough on this issue."

Instead, discussions will continue on relatively minor financial issues, just to keep the pace going.

“We are trying to advance on [other] issues in the absence of … making a breakthrough on the key challenge.”

Soft Brexit

Meanwhile in the UK, the opposition Labour party is moving towards supporting a so-called soft Brexit.

Over the weekend, MP Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary for Labour, came out in favour of a transitional period after March 2019.

He wrote in the Observer that the “harsh realities of the negotiating process and the glacial pace of progress in the first two rounds of talks” showed that “a transitional period is an economic and political necessity”.

Starmer said that, during that transitional period, Britain should remain in the EU's customs union and the single market.

The ruling Conservative party dismissed the idea as “a weak attempt to kick the can down the road”.

Ireland

Also over the weekend, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar weighed in on the border discussion.

“In life and politics nothing is 100 percent certain, but I am very confident that there won’t be passport controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” Varadkar said.

He noted that “Dublin, Belfast, London and Brussels” all want to “continue passport-free travel between Northern Ireland and Ireland”.

Brexit realities dawn in UK

Just over a year after a small majority voted for Britain to leave the EU, new realities are dawning on both the in and the out camps.

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There is a distinct sense that in London and Brussels alike, political elites are intimately agreeing Brexit priorities with business elites.

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After one of the tensest week so far in Brexit talks, 'substantial' disagreements remain between the UK and the EU over transition, with Michel Barnier insisting London needs to decide on the future relationship and Ireland for Brexit to happen.

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