Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
On an almost daily basis, experienced commentators who should know better express surprise that the Brexit negotiations are not progressing more quickly. They rake over details of the UK’s offer on payments and citizens’ rights, or reflect whether more concrete proposals should have been made to resolve the conundrum that is the Irish border.
In doing so, they simultaneously play into the hands of the European Union, which is happy for pressure to be applied to the UK’s negotiating team, and fundamentally misunderstand the game that is being played out.
Whatever offers had been made by the David Davis and his team over the past couple of months, we would be no further forward. However generous and conciliatory Theresa May was in her Florence speech (which helped to improve the mood music in both Brussels and many of the EU27 capitals) it was never going to be enough.
Similarly, the European Parliament was always going to decide this week that “sufficient progress” had not been made for it to support the widening of talks. More significantly, I suspect the European Council vote on the issue in a couple of weeks is similarly pre-determined.
This is because the EU sees time and continued uncertainty as its biggest allies. Brussels has dictated that the most difficult issues must be dealt with first and believes the UK’s need to talk about the future relationship will force it to make concessions. As the clock ticks down, so the theory goes, British businesses will become more and more concerned about the lack of certainty and heap pressure on ministers to agree whatever is necessary to move negotiations onto the future trading relationship.
This is especially true when it comes to money. The EU has no idea how to fill the €9 billion net or more a year budget gap that will be left by the UK’s departure and is relying on Michel Barnier playing hard ball.
Given that the EU will not cut its cloth accordingly, politicians in Sweden, Austria and Denmark have made it clear they have no intention of increasing their contributions, while net recipients such as Poland are equally determined their benefits should not be reduced. Meanwhile, proposals that Brussels should raise its own resources via EU-wide taxes are meeting resistance in member states. In short, the bloc needs our money to kick the crisis further the road.
Then there is Barnier’s personal interest in spinning things out. The former French government minister must have thought his political career was winding down when he completed his stint as a European Commissioner in 2014. Then, two years later, he was plucked from the relative obscurity of security adviser to Jean-Claude Juncker to lead the Brexit negotiations. Now he is being talked about as a possible Spitzenkandidat to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission.
Some of my friends in Barnier’s EPP political group tell me that, in order to be considered as their candidate for the role, he needs to remain in the limelight for as long as possible – since once the Brexit talks slip out of the headlines, so does he. They are unable to agree whether no agreement helps or hinders his chances.
But time pressures cut both ways and, unnoticed by most commentators, chinks are beginning to appear in the EU’s strategy.
Already, the EU is demanding discussion of Tariff Rate Quotas (TRQs) and the continuing recognition of Geographical Indicators (GIs), the system of protecting certain food and drink products linked to regions such as champagne and Melton Mowbray pork pies. These are both trade matters which, according to the EU’s repeated statements, should not be brought up until the next phase of talks.
At the same time, Ireland is growing nervous about the lack of progress on border issues. While the UK and Ireland would prefer to maintain the Common Travel Area which has existed in different forms since the 1920s, predating both countries’ memberships of the EEC, the EU blames the UK for wanting a border since we are leaving. In fact, despite some fears, the UK does not see the Common Travel Area with Ireland as a potential loophole to continue EU freedom of movement. The UK has dutifully put forward suggestions and called for the EU to join it in creating a novel solution, but Brussels has declined, insisting it is up to the UK alone to find the answers.
Leo Varadkar probably could not say so publicly for fear of breaking the unity of the EU27 – and knows that a bit of UK-bashing will do him no harm domestically in the run up to the next Irish general election – but there are suspicions that the EU is dragging its feet because, once an arrangement is agreed for the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border, it could then be used as a template for the wider UK/EU trade deal. This is clearly something Brussels wants to delay due to its insistence on trade being an issue for a later stage.
So whilst it would be prudent to prepare for all eventualities – including future trade with the EU being governed by WTO rules – this bout will probably go the full distance. Punches will be thrown, but do not expect any knockout blows, resulting in either the UK or EU emerging victorious after any of the next few negotiating rounds.
While there is always the chance that both sides may tumble out of the ring at the final bell without a conclusive result, it is probable we will see a split decision or, perhaps even better, agree to call it a draw, shaking hands with both sides emerging as winners.