The conclusion of the first full round of substantive negotiations in the Article 50 process last week highlighted two basic truths about the situation.
The first is that Brexit is complex. While this has often been seen by those pressing for the UK’s departure from the EU as an attempt by their opponents to argue that Britain shouldn’t leave, it is more simply a statement of the situation as it is. Even on the very limited areas under discussion at present, there is already a welter of detail and consequential precision that is required.
As an illustration, we might look at the summary note produced by the Commission on the most-developed set of negotiations, on citizen’s rights. Across 11 pages, it lists 47 specific points for discussion, of which only 23 are marked as showing ‘convergence’ of UK and EU positions.
Not only is there a volume of detail to be worked on but that volume is also interconnected: decisions in one area are shaped and will shape what happens in other areas. Thus the current discussions on financial settlement are bound up with the extent of citizens’ rights (given this might include access to healthcare or certain classes of benefits) and with the status of the Irish border (since this might affect participation in the customs union).
In short, negotiators have to have an eye on both the big picture and the fine detail across a very broad scope of activity, even as they have the next phase of negotiations (on transitional arrangements) in the back of their minds.
But it is here that the second key point from last week becomes more apparent, namely that the UK still lacks a clear strategic objective.
An absolute fundamental of any negotiation is knowing what you want to achieve. Without this it is impossible to develop a means of getting it or of knowing you’ve got it. Notwithstanding the increasing capacity and capability of the UK’s negotiating team in DExEU, without a clear steer from central government about the purpose behind the negotiations, it is very difficult for them to engage in constructive negotiations with the Commission.
Thus what was happening back in London was at least as significant as what was on the table in Brussels, as ministers pushed various different ideas about how to tackle Article 50, and those seeking to limit or block it altogether appeared to have gained more confidence.
From the Commission’s perspective, this is all very frustrating. Since the start of May they have had a mandate to negotiate the UK’s withdrawal that is couched in terms that can accommodate a wide variety of British preferences. The only thing it cannot accommodate is all of that variety at the same time.
Consequently, Michel Barnier’s main focus on Thursday’s press conference was on the need for clarification from the UK on assorted points, even David Davis talked up the progress that he saw during the week.
A resolution of this matters already now, for two reasons.
Firstly, the current package of negotiations is only the opening phase of Article 50: the Commission has stressed once more that significant progress needs to be made on citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish border before it can recommend to EU27 member states that there is a shift on to talking about any transitional package. This latter will be important, given the need to provide some kind of framework within which the UK and EU can negotiate a new relationship over the years following March 2019. The softening sounds from London on the need for this suggests that the initial intention to be done and dusted by Brexit-day is now not the preferred option.
Secondly, progress now matters for the general need for on-going goodwill between the parties. It is not coincidental that citizens’ rights was the very first area of activity, since it was seen to be a place for an early win, from which progress in other areas could flow. Indeed, despite the various points of disagreement, that still seems to be the case, given the politics of the finances and the seeming intractability of the Irish border. The negotiators since have well over a year working together, and the more that they can build an atmosphere of trust and cooperation, the higher the likelihood of reaching a mutually-satisfactory outcome.
Opening phases of negotiations are always tricky, since they involve a degree of getting-to-know-you activity, as each side tries to get a measure of where everyone is and where they want to get to. The disappointment from the EU side will be that this phase looks set to last rather longer than they would like, especially given that it is now over a year since the EU referendum.
By Dr Simon Usherwood, UK in a Changing Europe research investigator and reader in politics at University of Surrey.