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7 September 2017

The government is bungling Brexit talks – it needs to take them seriously

Downing Street would rather “park Brexit” so Theresa May can outline a domestic programme.

By Stephen Bush

How badly are Britain’s Brexit talks going? The Mirror has a survey showing that close to two-thirds of people are less confident in the government’s handling of the talks than they were six months ago.

The FT reveals that Downing Street has sparked business anger by attempting to corral support for the government’s approach in an open letter. “Executives resist Downing Street’s ‘strong-arm’ bid for Brexit backing” is their splash.

And the unease extends further afield than the UK. Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, has told Politico that, in his view, not enough headway has been made on the legacy issues of the divorce bill, the security of the Good Friday Agreement and the status of three million EU citizens in the United Kingdom for talks to progress onto the future relationship between the UK and the EU27.

Elsewhere, the Guardian‘s Jennifer Rankin reveals that the Commission is so frustrated that they will publish their own set of papers, calling on the UK for further clarity, particularly on the question of the Irish border.

While the decision on whether the talks can progress to the next stage will ultimately come down to the leaders of member states, not the Parliament or the Commission, the general impression is that talks will continue to stall. Who’s to blame?

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You don’t have to be David Davis to think that Michel Barnier’s mandate as a negotiator is too inflexible. It’s difficult to reach an agreement on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic until it’s clear roughly what the regulatory barriers between the United Kingdom and the EU will be. If the United Kingdom continues to be an active and paying participant in research, security and other EU-wide programmes, that has consequences for the divorce bill, too.

However, that doesn’t mean the British government is handling talks well or with the appropriate seriousness. Negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union is the biggest political and economic challenge since 1945. Yet the focus in Downing Street is of ways to “park Brexit” so that Theresa May can outline a domestic programme and be remembered for something other than facilitating our exit from the EU.

Winston Churchill didn’t spend time in 1942 trying to place an article in the Mail about responsible capitalism and May shouldn’t be wasting time on that, either. (Among the striking revelations in Tajani’s Politico piece: May has yet to reply to the European Parliament’s invitation to address the body, declining an opportunity to woo an institution that will ultimately vote on the Brexit deal. This isn’t the first time, either: May has already snubbed a similar invitation from the Irish parliament. Still, I suppose one’s got to free up time to write opinion pieces about the “just about managing” somehow.)

As for the man actually negotiating Brexit, as it’s not in the United Kingdom’s political, moral or economic interest to be anything other than accommodating on the question of the three million European citizens already living in the UK, why is David Davis wasting time on it? And while the size of the divorce bill will probably be finessed until the eleventh hour, Davis’s department ought to have devised some kind of fair formula for the balance owed (already agreed commitments minus areas of continuing co-contribution, and some kind of deduction against the value of assets acquired by the EU during British membership). 

If May and Davis wanted to “make a success of Brexit”, they would, among other things: forget the idea that there can be a Mayite legacy beyond facilitating the best possible exit from the EU, stop tickling the tummies of the Brexit press as far as payments to the EU are concerned, and build useful alliances in the European parliament and with member states instead of investing false hope in Angela Merkel.

They could also, while they’re at it, stop indulging fantasies such as that peddled by Nick Timothy in today’s Telegraph that the EU will blink first and that the government can or should prepare for a “no deal scenario”.

Instead, they do none of these things, while the clock ticks closer to a Brexit deal which will create jobs only for new Labour MPs in Conservative seats and with just one winner: Jeremy Corbyn.