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16 December 2016

How the Brexit negotiations will work – and what’s at stake

The EU has laid out how it sees negotations progressing. 

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May’s attendance at yesterday’s EU summit was summed by a GIF that did the rounds of the PM looking isolated and alone while other politicians exchanged warm greetings.

It’s Rorschach’s YouTube clip: either it shows why we were right to leave these petty and small-minded Europeans or it shows the damage wrought by crass remarks about how Britain will get a great deal because the Italians, Germans and French are desperate to sell us prosecco, BMWs or shoes. (Or both: and don’t underestimate the ability of those leavers who are currently on the outside looking in, like Michael Gove, say, to benefit if a Brexit deal goes south on the grounds that we were right to leave but bungled the leaving)

But what it really speaks to is the reality of who wields power in the Brexit talks (hint: it ain’t the side banking on buying fizzy wine and footwear to get a good deal).

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On the same day that it has been reported that Ivan Rogers, our man in Brussels, told Theresa May that it will take a decade to negotiate the final terms of exit, the EU27 have given us the first signs of what they see as the path to that deal: withdrawal, transition and exit.

“Withdrawal” will cover the process of leaving and the final bill for programmes already agreed and partially paid for during the terms of Britain’s membership. Or, as much of the British press is calling the “divorce bill”. It’s a better analogy to see it as leaving a dinner with friends midway through but leaving some money for your starter and drinks.

But that the Telegraph‘s splash is “EU hands Britain £50bn Brexit bill” attests to the PM’s domestic problem. It is next-to-impossible that a Brexit deal won’t involve Britain paying not just for the food already eaten, but continuing to stump up for some of the rest of the gang to keep eating, but many of May’s biggest cheerleaders in the press and her parliamentary party are opposed to it.

Then there’s transition. That’s the deal favoured by Philip Hammond and much of business. Here, domestic politics and the domestic demands of the EU27 are, for May, happily joined. No-one in the European Union wants a transition that lasts forever, and that the deal will have a number of “sunset clauses” according to the plan approved last night, will make it an easier sell to those Brexiteers who fear that the transition will take forever.