The European Union has offered the United Kingdom a glimmer of light that Brexit talks could move on to future trade, although not just yet. An internal draft document suggests the green light could be given in December.
The draft, submitted by European Council President Donald Tusk to leaders of the 27 other EU governments ahead of a crucial summit next week, suggests that countries should begin internal preparations now over a transition and future trade – with a view to authorising negotiators to open talks with the UK by the end of the year.
Good cop, bad cop
However, the EU is still sticking to its guns that more is expected from London. If Tusk is playing good cop, the Commission president is playing bad.
Jean-Claude Juncker followed up on Friday, saying the UK will “have to pay” if it wants to advance to the second phase – and confirming that such a move was not yet on the cards.
“They (the British) are discovering, as we are, day after day, new problems. That’s the reason why this process will take longer than initially thought. We had the idea that we would clear all the questions relating to the divorce – it’s not possible,” he said in a speech in Luxembourg.
Tusk’s document also confirms that the UK’s request for trade talks to begin now will be refused next week due to a lack of progress over a separation settlement – despite advances in some matters such as citizen rights. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said on Thursday that talks were deadlocked over a British refusal to clarify how much it would pay on leaving.
An olive branch to the UK?
Diplomats say however that the EU is ready to talk about how to minimise disruption and avoid the consequences of a “hard Brexit” involving a significant rupture of current terms, or a disorderly exit with no deal agreed.
France and Germany recently objected to a suggestion from Barnier that the EU should start working on transition plans. But Tusk is said to have sounded out most national leaders in recent days, reportedly briefing Theresa May on his preparations on Thursday.
The draft document could still be amended and it is likely that more movement would still be expected from the UK. May has signalled that Britain would pay 20 billion euros into the EU budget after Brexit to honour commitments – but London has strongly resisted disclosing what it might pay after it leaves the EU.
As a fifth round of negotiations ended on the same day, Britain’s Brexit minister David Davis appealed to EU government leaders to acknowledge the UK’s drive to get the process moving, as outlined in the prime minister’s speech in Florence last month.
‘No deal’ rows rumble on
In the UK a parliamentary debate on the government’s EU withdrawal bill, scheduled for next week, has been postponed. It’s thought that some of 300 opposition amendments have the support of at least a handful of rebels from among the ruling Conservative ranks, enough to pose a serious threat to the bill’s progress.
The government is embroiled in a raging debate over the nature of the future ties the country should seek with the EU – and about the extent to which it should prepare for a “no deal” scenario. Nigel Lawson, Britain’s finance minister in the Thatcher era, has called for the post’s current occupant Philip Hammond to be sacked – describing his refusal to channel immediate funds to plan for such circumstances as “very close to sabotage”.
Hammond’s stance – warning repeatedly that the UK economy badly needs a deal with the EU – was supported on Thursday by the head of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, who said negotiators should put the interest of people before those of business. Their needs would not be provided for should Britain be forced to fall back on World Trade Organisation rules in the absence of a deal with the EU, she added.