EU’s unsparing question to UK: now what kind of future relations do you want?

British Prime Minister Theresa May (first from right) meets with European Council President Donald Tusk (first from left) while in Sweden for the Gothenburg Social Summit. Taken on November 17, 2017. UK Government work, some rights reserved.

This week, the countdown starts for Britain to offer final answers, about the three Brexit prerequisites: the divorce alimony, the future of the 4.5 million European citizens who work on the wrong side of the English Channel and the Irish border. Only then will Brussels pass to the second phase of the talks, to discuss future trade and economic relations with London. At least, this was the deal until last week.

However today, Monday, Theresa May the UK premier, meets Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission head, to confer about moving the Brexit talks to the next stage, that is the future relations between EU and the UK. On Wednesday, the permanent representatives of the 27 EU members will meet to evaluate it.

On 27 November this newspaper published an article entitled “Britain offers more money for an orderly Brexit but the Irish question resurges”. It said London is finally prepared to more or less meet Brussels’ demand for an exit toll of around €50 billion and secure the future of expatriates. This arrangement, though, leaves the Irish border question pending. In any case, the willingness of Britain to honor her obligations to the EU budget has unlocked the Brexit negotiations and the passage to the second stage may happen soon. Let’s dig in the details.

The prerequisites

With two of the three main prerequisites almost settled, the 27 EU leaders who are expected to meet on 14 December could give the green light for the Brexit negotiations to pass to the second phase. This is of vital importance to Britain, because it’s about the future trade, economic and financial relations between the two sides.

As it always happens with crucial EU issues though, there will be no clear final solution until the very last minute. The Brussels negotiators fear that after some months, if trade talks don’t go in the direction the UK wants, London may reverse its promise about money. Equally foggy is the Irish situation, with Britain playing down the problem.

As a result, what the 27 EU leaders are about to decide next week, won’t be a full scale opening of the second stage of negotiations about the future relations. Not before the issues pertaining to the past are settled. A formula will be found to refer the beginning of trade negotiations well into 2018, without openly saying that the prerequisites are or are not fulfilled.

UK’s political inferno

In the meantime, the internal political scenery in Britain is deteriorating fast, at least for the Conservatives. The influential hard Brexiteer right-wing group within the Tories is increasingly terrified with the growing influence and penetration of Jeremy Corbyn, the left wing leader of Labour Party. In view of that, those Tories cannot push Prime Minister Theresa May as hard as they did until recently, towards a no-deal disorderly Brexit. If they do, May could resign and Corbyn could win the next election.

This is the worst nightmare for the Brexiteer Tories. It constitutes the only reason why they gave their consent for the latest step, in which Britain nearly meets the Brussels demand for the divorce alimony. Al taken into account though, mainland Europeans have lost confidence with the British governing party. Nobody in France, Germany and elsewhere in mainland Europe forgets the arrogant and derogatory attitude towards the EU, after the referendum of 23 June 2016.

Brussels’ ‘technology’

Consequently, Brussels do not actually intend to start talking about trade, before all prerequisites are settled and signed. But how can Brussels have it both ways – pass on to the second phase of negotiations, but not really starting it? The EU has the ‘technology’ for that. Michel Barnier, the head of the EU negotiators of Brexit will very probably pose the unsparing question to his British counterpart David Davis and the UK team: and now what kind of future trade relations you have in mind? The Brits will have grave political problems to answer this inquiry. Half of them want full scale relations and the other half vies for quite the opposite.

In this way, Brussels plans to procrastinate on the decision about the fulfillment of the prerequisites. Even more important, Brussels will press London to explain in detail want kind of access to the internal EU market and customs union they want. If they want full access, Brexit loses almost all its meaning. In this case though, the UK will pay dearly for such a first class ticket. If the UK plans otherwise, Britain will be charged with tolls on a case by case basis. This is really the shopping list case which the Europeans are masters in bargaining about.

The Irish schism

While in this way the Brexit horizon is more or less clarifying, the Irish question threatens to upset the entire arrangement. The Irish Republic, the Eire, will not accept a solution involving the installation of hard borders, cutting the island in two. Phil Hogan, the Eire European Commissioner said his country can go as far as veto a Brexit deal, if it doesn’t provide for undeterred border crossings.

On the other side, the Anglophiles of the right wing, monolithic DUP party of Northern Ireland maintain they won’t accept a solution, which doesn’t provide for Northern Ireland to exit the EU on exactly the same terms as the rest of the UK. For DUP’s demand to be satisfied, the enactment of a hard border is inevitable. This is because EU’s internal market and customs union have to be protected. Brussels will never tolerate a 499 km hole in EU’s external borders.

An uncertain opening

Still, on 14 December, the 27 leaders are reportedly expected to give the green light for the Brexit talks, to pass to the second phase, where future trade and economic relations will be decided. As mentioned above, this green light will not be so bright. It will just illuminate Theresa May’s uncertain way through Britain’s treacherous political landscape.

It’s the first time that Brussels offers a helping hand to May. Mainland Europeans reckon the Tory Brexiteers won’t dare bring her down, even if she pays dearly for her way out from the EU and vies to keep wide open the European door for the UK.

 

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