The August 3rd Round of Brexit negotiations closed this week with a press conference even tenser than that which closed July’s.
The View from the Berlaymont
Even for an experienced statesman, Michel Barnier found it hard to hide his frustration at the slow pace of progress during Thursday’s press conference. The UK’s call for “flexibility and imagination” appears to miss the point of Mr Barnier’s mandate, as set by the European Council, which is very strict and from which he cannot deviate.
Accusations of bureaucracy aimed at the EU will not cut through, partly because the European Commission, which Barnier represents, is a bureaucracy first and foremost- and not, as the UK seems to believe, an overtly political animal, notwithstanding the personalities within it.
Barnier was candid in his press conference, in curtly asserting that “no decisive progress” had been made, which would allow him to suggest to the EU-27 that talks should progress to Phase 2.
The mood in Brussels is pessimistic – and maybe realistic, given the deep divide between the two sides. Two issues – citizens’ rights and the financial settlement – are the key sticking points for which there doesn’t seem to be an obvious solution.
The View from Whitehall
David Davis appeared equally frustrated, choosing to translate this into a pugnacious reiteration of the need for “flexibility and imagination”.
In reference to the 3rd Round he testily contradicted Barnier, stating, “We have seen some concrete progress … Michel referred to one area, I think there are more than that”. He also chose to restate that incremental progress cannot be expected at every round.
On the most controversial issue, the financial settlement, Davis said that the UK Government has a “duty to taxpayers to interrogate it rigorously” and that as such the UK’s position is informed by a “detailed legal analysis”.
Looking ahead to Round 4: concrete progress or progress in concrete?
Davis is fond of the word concrete in reference to progress made during the negotiations. Concrete is an apt choice, but not in the way Davis intends.
The negotiations are moving forward like wet concrete, slowly, restricted by the Commission’s narrow mandate and the UK Government’s political strait-jacket.
Overtime concrete eventually sets in a particular position and is no longer ‘flexible’. There is now a real risk that this could happen to the negotiations as the acrimony builds.
Some UK hopes are pinned on progress once the German Election on 24 September is over, but whether it’s Chancellor Merkel or Chancellor Schulz, there will be no easy wins for the UK. Schulz, if anything, is more of a pro-EU firebrand than Merkel, and with France’s Macron happy to state his EU credentials, it will be the UK that will perhaps need to show more flexibility in its approach to the negotiations in the coming months.
In any event the German Election falls after the 4th Round starting on 18 September. Waiting for the election to finish could waste another entire round.