Tuesday

16th Jan 2018

Brexit talks enter pre-summit round

  • David Davis (l) and Michel Barnier (r) will lead negotiators into a fifth round of talks (Photo: European Commission)

Brexit negotiators kick off the final round of talks on Monday (9 October) before an EU summit later this month, where EU leaders will assess the progress achieved on key issues.

It is unlikely that this week's round will reach "sufficient progress" on citizens' rights, the border of Ireland and the UK financial settlement for EU leaders to give the green light for talks to move to the next phase - on trade and future relations.

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European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier have made it clear that the UK's expectations to make the leap forward are premature.

However, EU leaders might want to make a gesture towards embattled British prime minister Theresa May, who recently took steps towards the EU position in a speech in Florence by accepting limited proposals on a British pay-out.

May has also sought a two-year transition period after Brexit to avoid sudden change.

EU leaders, while maintaining that no sufficient progress had been made, might still signal that they are willing to explore the transition phase.

May's political weakness is a concern in Brussels, where negotiators are seeking clarity on several UK positions.

"Speeches are poetry, negotiations are prose," said an EU official, pointing out that May's commitments still need to be translated into actual positions.

The British PM has been under increasing pressure since losing her majority in a snap election in June, resulting in a minority government.

The Conservative Party conference last week failed to reinforce her position as prime minister.

May is due to speak in parliament later on Monday, reportedly telling the EU "the ball is in their court".

EU leaders will come back to the issue of sufficient progress at their December summit, when it is expected that talks will finally be allowed to proceed to trade.

Slow progress

Progress has been mostly made on citizens' rights, but the future of the EU's top court is still an outstanding issue.

The UK has made some concessions on agreeing to have "direct effect" of European law in safeguarding citizens' rights, but how European Court of Justice rulings will be taken into account is still to be settled.

Maintaining an invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland also remains a challenge, with Ireland's Office of the Revenue Commissioners (ORC) concluding in a report that new customs posts will be needed with significant facilities.

"While some form of common travel area may exist post-Brexit, a completely open border is not possible from a customs perspective," a leaked report said, according to Irish broadcaster RTE.

The report called it "naive" to think that a unique arrangement can be negotiated.

It also said that cargo will have to be fully inspected after Brexit to make sure goods are in line with EU standards, and they will not be released until all customs checks have been completed.

The EU and Ireland has so far looked to the UK for finding a solution to maintaining a seamless border while preserving the integrity of the EU's single market and customs union, arguing that it was the UK's decision to leave the bloc.

The EU and Ireland have also argued that the UK, as a guarantor of the Good Friday peace agreement, needs to come up with a plausible arrangement.

However, the goal of safeguarding the single market might prompt Ireland and the EU into cooking up solutions on their own.

As the Brexit talks enter their fifth round, negotiators are also seeking more clarity on May's commitment to EU countries that they will not need to pay more or receive less from the current, seven-year EU budget.

Toeing the line

In the meantime, the Conservative Party suspended the membership of two of its MEPs for supporting the European Parliament's (EP) Brexit resolution last week.

MEP Julie Girling and MEP Richard Ashworth voted in favour of the EP resolution which stated that there was no "sufficient progress" to move talks on to trade.

"Given the seriousness of this issue, and your failure to discuss your intention to vote against the agreed position of the Conservative delegation in advance, I am therefore writing to inform you that I am suspending the Conservative whip from you until further notice," the chief whip of the Conservatives, MEP Dan Dalton, said in a letter to the suspended deputies.

The UK's Brexit minister, David Davis, in a separate letter to the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, urged him to do the same with Labour's 18 MEPs who also voted in favour of the resolution.

The EP resolution is non-binding and it remains up to Barnier to recommend to EU leaders if sufficient progress has been made.

Dalton's move was backed by the UK government because the two MEPs had acted "totally irresponsibly", a Downing street source said.

EU puts May under pressure over Brexit and 'Boris'

MEPs and Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker insist that "speeches are not enough" and say that the UK prime minister's political weakness at home prevents progress in negotiations.

Progress made in Brexit talks, but not enough

Fourth round of Brexit talks saw cooperative tone in a shift after May's speech, but there serious differences on financial commitments and EU court remained.

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'The clock is ticking' - a favourite phrase of EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier - has become a stark warning, as the UK government took nine months to initiate the Brexit process and even longer to clarify its positions.

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The EU's chief Brexit negotiator is an atypical French politician, with a love for mountains and Europe. He has been steering Brexit talks with a steady hand, and a deal could catapult him to the higher echelons of EU politics.

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