David Davis’s plea for more imagination and flexibility from the EU in hopes of early start to trade talks met a stony response.
The big picture
At the end of a brief sixth round of Brexit talks last week, the EU27 set Britain a tight two-week deadline to provide vital further clarification on the financial commitments it is willing to honour as part of the divorce deal.
The Brexit secretary, David Davis, asked for more imagination and flexibility in a bid to move the talks on from the key article 50 divorce issues to future relations, as the British government wants, but the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, was not budging.
Member states will make the decision at a summit on 14 and 15 December and trade talks will be postponed unless there is “real and sincere progress” on the exit bill – estimated at about €60bn (£53bn) – the Irish border and citizens’ rights, he said.
Those steps must be made within the next fortnight to allow the summit’s draft conclusions to be circulated and approved in good time, although given the British government’s instability and division many on the continent doubt this is possible.
In an interview with the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, Barnier said the EU was drawing up contingency plans for the possible collapse of the talks. This was not the preferred option, he said, but:
It’s a possibility. Everyone needs to plan for it, member states and businesses alike. We too are making technical preparations for it.
In a major concession to pro-EU backbenchers and in an implicit acknowledgement of its weakness, the government promised on Monday that MPs and peers will be able to scrutinise, debate and vote on a final deal through an act of parliament.
The move was not a huge surprise, since ministers faced defeat in parliament on precisely this “meaningful vote” question, and Davis’s promise was attacked on both sides by MPs who noted it would give them no say in the event of there not being a deal and was in any case meaningless without a pledge to hold the vote before Brexit day.
My colleague Dan Roberts has an excellent explainer on what the offer of statutory approval might mean for Brexit in practice here.
The view from Europe
The border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has suddenly become as big a stumbling block as the financial settlement.
Davis last week firmly rejected an EU suggestion that Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union or the single market, saying that would in effect “create a new border” inside the UK – one between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.
Dublin, for its part, is adamant that Britain will not dictate the border’s future. Foreign minister Simon Coveney said Ireland would remain a “consistent, firm and stubborn” opponent of any proposal leading to a hard border with Northern Ireland:
It seems essential to us that there is no … regulatory divergence from the rules of the internal market or customs unions which are necessary for meaningful north-south cooperation, or an all-Ireland economy that is consistent with the Good Friday agreement.
Arrangements acceptable to the EU would include those adapted for Hong Kong and Macau, which are part of China but have their own trade regimes. Brussels favours the province staying under EU law, allowing trade to flow freely on the island.
It is not immediately clear how a way will be found out of this impasse. There are now real concerns on the continent that Theresa May’s government is too fragile and divided to come up with adequate proposals on this, and other key issues.
Ultimately, Barnier said in a significant speech in Rome, Britain is going to have to choose between deregulating and following the US social and economic model, or staying within the European mainstream:
The UK has chosen to leave the EU. Will it also want to move away from the European model? There is behind the European regulatory framework the fundamental societal choices we hold: the social market economy, health protection, food security, fair and efficient financial regulation … It is up to the British to tell us whether they still adhere to the European model. Their answer is important because it directs the discussion on our future partnership.
Meanwhile, back in Westminster
Those in Westminster who worry that Brexit is, for some proponents, almost a cult will have had their prejudices confirmed by news that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have written to Theresa May seeking to toughen her resolve on the issue.
The missive has, inevitably, been described as “Orwellian”, containing as it does advice that May should ensure her ministers get fully behind Brexit by “clarifying their minds” and seeking to “internalise the logic”.
The letter, and the fact it brought not a squeak of protest from No 10, also demonstrates another thing: how gravely weak May’s position is.
This will be further illustrated later this week when the EU withdrawal bill, which seeks to move EU rules and statute into British law, returns to the Commons for the committee stage, when amendments can be made. Dozens of amendments have been tabled, and despite Davis’s last-minute promise of primary legislation that will allow MPs the chance to debate and vote on the final deal, dissatisfaction in the chamber is such that several of them could yet pass.
The prime minister’s powers of persuasion over her MPs have also hardly been improved after she lost a second cabinet minister, Priti Patel, in a week, over a spot of off-the-books freelance diplomacy in Israel.
May is being urged to consider a major cabinet reshuffle to reassert control. But as ever, there is a tension between what might be politically useful, and what a PM who is arguably the weakest in living memory can realistically do.