Brexit talks started with a London handicap and Brussels’ sternness

Michel Barnier, Chief of the European Commission team (on the right) for the Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom and David Davis, British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union held a joint press conference following their first meeting. Monday 19/06/2017. Location: Brussels – EC/Berlaymont. © European Union, 2017/ Source: EC – Audiovisual Service / Photo: Mauro Bottaro.

Last Monday’s first meeting between the British and the EU Brexit negotiations teams gave a clear indication that London has started watering down its extra hard stance.The threat of a calamitous no-deal Brexit has visibly exited from the picture. The gratuitous cheerful and smiling David Davis, the chief Brit negotiator was confronted by the visible soberness of Michel Barnier, his EU counterpart. They said they agreed the calendar and the structure of negotiations. No sign of the up to the recently prevailing in London, British self assured attitude. These changes are in large part the outcome of the last heavily weighing electoral fiasco of the Tories and the unanimous stance of EU’s 27 leaders bluntly forbidding any compromises regarding the Brexit negotiations.

This may very well mean that the Brits may abandon, possibly gradually, their major stipulation for a ‘parallel’ discussion of a trade deal along with the other issues. It must be underlined that the parallel discussion of the future trade deal alongside the other issues, has been May’s red line. She badly wants this parallel negotiation in order to obtain trade concession, against the acceptance to foot a negotiable part of the ‘Brexit account’ that London must pay for leaving the EU. This cost is estimated by Brussels at around €60 billion.

London weakened

However, in Brussels, Commission officials believe that PM Theresa May cannot anymore support her initial tough stance, even threatening with a hard Brexit – no deal at all. Within her government and her Tory party the position of the ‘remainers’ has greatly strengthened after the electoral humiliation she suffered on 8 June, losing the Parliamentary majority.

Undeniably, after the last legislative election, May has lost the ability to impose the hard Brexiteer position of this weakening group of the Tories she represents. As a result, London will be from now on much more sensible about Brexit and Brussels know that very well. Barnier said this plainly: “It is the United Kingdom that’s leaving the European Union, not the other way around…. Everyone must accept their responsibilities, the consequences of their decisions … So my mind is not on making concessions or asking for concessions.”

No favors in the horizon

After last Monday’s eight hours talks, Barnier and Davis delivered a joint Press conference. The Brit said that the talks about trade and the other issues should be held in parallel. However, Barnier bluntly replied that the future trade relations will be discussed in the second phase of the negotiations and that’s final. Understandably, if the Brits do not accept that, they have to take refuge to the ‘no deal at all’ exit. But this is now politically impossible in Britain. To be reminded, that in the pre-referendum period the Brexiteer leaders were reassuring their compatriots that the UK, after leaving the EU, will continue to be part of its internal market, without having to pay a ‘participation fee’. The 27 EU leaders though have unanimously agreed that Britain cannot have it both ways; being part of the internal market without having to comply with the obligations which go with it.

The Irish factor

The trade issue plays a paramount role in Ireland. After the Brexit the boundaries of Northern Ireland and the Eire, the Irish Republic, will be the only land borders between the UK and the EU. Today, the Irish people freely go up and down this theoretical line because there is actually no such a thing as a border. This freedom and the practical unification of the two parts of the isle has played a key role in the pacification of the North.

The thirty years bloody civil war between the Anglophile Protestants and the nationalist Catholics has ended, largely due to this practical unification of North and the South of Ireland. For as long as both sides are parts of the EU, they can happily keep eliminating any sign of division. Actually, the nationalist left wing Sinn Fein party (of Catholic conviction, if any) is officially active in both Northern Ireland and the Eire. Alas if, after the Brexit, God forbid, a toll and a customs booth is installed in the land border between Eire and Northern Ireland. The Anglophile Protestants will fight to remain within the borders of the UK, while the Catholic nationalists will be battling to join the Eire and again the EU.

Brussels has paid special attention to this issue. Barnier stressed that the mainland Europeans and the Brits – around 5 million people who work in the other side – together with the Irish people must be reassured the soonest possible that their lives will continue as today. The British negotiator only very vaguely agreed to that. PM May, after the June 2016 referendum, had said it plainly that the future of the mainland Europeans who work in Britain will be ‘traded’ with Brussels.

Irreparable damages?

Of course today, after her electoral disaster, she doesn’t dare repeat this inhumane assertion, to turn people into a tradable ‘asset’. The same goes for Ireland. Last week, her decision to form a minority government, with the backing of the 10 Anglophile deputies of Northern Ireland has already perplexed the situation. If those 10 Irish Unionist MPs manage to extract political concessions from May for their own favor, this will surely create an explosive atmosphere on the entire island.

In conclusion, the future developments around the Brexit negotiations will be shaped by the following question: For how long yet will May be politically able to disregard the internal adversary forces, her treatment of the people (in Ireland and those who work in the ‘wrong’ country) has created? Some analysts add to that the absolute need for a trade and economic agreement, that the London financial hub and the largest part of the British business sectors demand. Brussels is willing to answer positively to that, but there will be no backing off from the conditions which go with it. And at the end, that is after some years, the new EU-UK relation may very well look like a full membership. Only in this way there will be no great irreparable damages for both sides.

 

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