The Brexit talks resumed this week in Brussels and by all accounts things are getting a little bit sticky.
One of the main problems seems to be that whilst the UK believes it has been very industrious this summer, producing no less than eight position papers and four partnership papers, the EU has criticized these publications quite robustly. The main points of contention are that the papers produced to date are in the main not relevant to this round of talks and even the two that are relevant are more statements of hope and meaningless catchphrases rather than suggestions for practical solutions.
The other expression of dismay is about the complete absence of a paper of any kind about the UK’s continuing financial obligations to the EU. One of the three key matters upon which the EU insists “sufficient progress” has to be made until we can move to stage two of the discussions.
First to the favourite sound bites employed in all of the papers. These include: a new deep and special partnership, flexible and imaginative, facilitate and its derivatives, frictionless and seamless. All of these are utilized and recycled endlessly throughout all the papers which can result in rather tedious reading.
Not being the most riveting read aside, it all may sound reasonable and no-one is disagreeing that it is better if we all stay good friends after the split. The problem lies in the fact that there are few suggestions as to what practical steps have to be taken to achieve this. The position papers have come under fire from the EU side for failing to address this matter.
For example the position paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland makes it clear that the Common Travel Area must be maintained as a border free zone to “maintain the free flow of people between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
Wonderful as an objective but how is this managed when this border will be the only land border between the EU and the UK?
The answer according to the position paper is:
“The UK must reach an agreement with the EU in order to ensure that the Irish side of the land border, which is subject to relevant EU regulations, is also as seamless and frictionless as possible. The nature of the border clearly means that we must aim for an agreed, reciprocal solution.”
“Devising a way forward on the Irish side of the land border will also require a flexible and imaginative approach that goes beyond current EU frameworks to achieve this.”
To achieve this it continues:
“The UK proposes that our dialogue should, at the earliest opportunity, focus in particular on the issues most critical to delivering as frictionless and seamless a border as possible: customs arrangements; and checks and processes on particular goods, such as Sanitary and Phytosanitary measures for agri-food. The dialogue should also consider and agree the scope of other potential barriers that need to be addressed to meet our shared objectives for the border. The UK recognises that different potential barriers in relation to the border may necessitate different solutions and that the UK and the EU should consider this in a flexible way rather than one that assumes a uniform approach.”
The Position Paper makes frequent references to the importance of maintaining an open border in the context of protecting the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement but it does not come up with constructive suggestions as to how such a border will protect the EU’s or the UK’s own customs and immigration regulations.
(See the problem relating to potatoes in our earlier blog Please can this have a link to the humble Brexit Spud?)
The UK seems unwilling make any concrete suggestions as to how to achieve this in practice but concentrates on what it wants to discuss.
“Delivering our shared objective will require detailed joint work and can only properly be finalised in the context of the new, deep and special partnership that the UK wishes to build with the EU.”
“To this end, the UK sets out in this paper a number of high level principles and criteria that the UK proposes the UK and EU should discuss in the forthcoming rounds.”
“The UK believes that agreeing principles and criteria first is the right approach to these discussions. The UK and the EU can then test proposals for specific models against these core principles in the context of the deep and special partnership”
The closest it comes to offering answer to how this can be achieved is when it suggests a new customs partnership arrangement which it wants to be “seamless” (of course) and operate much as it does today.
The paper acknowledges that this would involve some technical problems which would have to be resolved it does not give a viable propositions as to how these may be addressed.
“There would need to be a robust enforcement mechanism that ensured goods which had not complied with the EU’s trade policy stayed in the UK.”
Whilst it does suggest the answer to this may be some form of tracking system, specifics yet to be identified, it does acknowledge there is not a ready-made solution to this for immediate employment.
“We acknowledge this is an innovative and untested approach that would take time to develop and implement.”
The reaction from the EU has been rather scathing to say the least. Senior EU officials have been giving biting, off the record, briefings throughout the week.
“What we see in the UK paper is a lot of magical thinking about how an invisible border would work in the future”.
“If you look at the Irish paper, it is very good on aspirations but it is short on workable solutions.”
“We are concerned by the linkages created in the UK paper on Ireland, between the preservation of the peace process, including the invisible border and the future of the EU-UK trade relationship … and, in that context, we say the peace process must not be a bargaining chip in these negotiations.”
“The decision to leave the EU … was not the decision of Ireland and it was not the decision of the EU, so the UK has to take responsibility for the impact of that. And in that respect the uniqueness and the creativity that cannot be only a burden on the EU side”.
As for the missing paper on financial obligations Michael Barnier, EU’s Chief Negotiator was adamant. On Tuesday 29 August he made a clear statement.
“We need UK positions on all separation issues. This is necessary to make sufficient progress. We must start negotiating seriously. We need UK papers that are clear in order to have constructive negotiations. And the sooner we remove the ambiguity the sooner we will be in a position to discuss the future relationship and to a transitional period.”
Yesterday, Wednesday 30 August, Michael Barnier, EU’s Chief negotiator summed up his reaction to the repeated call from the UK for flexibility on this matter.
“To be flexible you need two points, our point and their point,” EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told reporters on the sidelines of talks in Brussels on Wednesday. “We need to know their position and then I can be flexible.”
Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, reaction was similar.
“If only one party around the table is putting a position and the other party is not responding then it is difficult to start a negotiation.”
The EU side is definitely not happy at all.