LONDON, July 17 — The UK and the European Union renewed divorce talks today with the clock ticking down to the March 2019 split.
It’s the second such meeting; the first round in June saw Britain concede to the EU’s demand to focus first on discussing citizens’ rights, the Irish border and a financial settlement. Only when “sufficient progress” has been made on these issues will the EU allow discussions to turn to trade.
Brexit Secretary David Davis, who met EU negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels today, told reporters it’s time to “get into the substance of the matter” and “identify the differences so we can deal with them, and identify the similarities so we can reinforce them.”
There has been movement on key issues from both camps, with the UK’s acknowledgment last week that it will need to cover financial obligations setting the tone for this week. Davis will return to Brussels on Thursday to conclude this month’s negotiating round.
Here’s the state of play:
The first big flare-up has been over the rights of three million EU citizens living in the UK and one million Britons residing in the EU.
Having ignored an EU proposal and rejected the advice of Davis to make a unilateral guarantee, May announced her plan on June 26.
She pledged EU citizens already in the UK would be treated as if they’re British for the purposes of receiving state education, health care, benefits and pensions. EU nationals would also be forced to hold an identity document.
The UK plan would still allow EU nationals to send welfare payments to family members elsewhere and wouldn’t require them to prove they have comprehensive sickness insurance and some other documents when seeking residency. It also offered to make unilateral guarantees on the indexation of pensions and to streamline the application process.
Barnier responded by calling for “more ambition, clarity and guarantees.” European Parliament lawmakers threatened to veto the Brexit deal unless the UK gives more ground.
Among the sticking points: Nationals of EU countries currently have fewer restrictions on bringing in non-EU family members than British citizens so the UK’s offer would see them lose rights.
The role of the European Court of Justice in enforcing the rights remains in question as do the cut-off date for when people must be in the UK to qualify and what happens if British law changes later.
European court of justice
In a bid to use Brexit to regain sovereignty, May said last year that one of her “red lines” was ending the court’s role in British law. She reemphasised that in a July 13 interview with The Sun newspaper and the government repeated it in a position paper the same day.
On whether the court should protect the rights of nationals after Brexit, Davis has said it won’t although he’s willing to consider the establishment of a new arbitration body. EU officials told Bloomberg in June that they may be willing to concede on their demand that the ECJ serve as arbiter.
Still, May’s spokesman, James Slack, said last week that “the transition rules could involve the ECJ for a limited time.” That would save Britain from needing a new regulatory regime for industries from drugs to aviation on the day of Brexit.
May initially argued that the divorce and new trade relationship could be wrapped up in two years. While she stands by that ambition, she has conceded there might need to be an implementation period.
How long and what form that takes will be matters of keen debate in Britain alone. Davis has suggested a maximum of three years. Trade Secretary Liam Fox spoke last week of “a few months,” but Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said yesterday “a couple of years” is more likely.
Hammond has also suggested “current customs border arrangements remaining in place, until new long-term arrangements are up and running.”
That implies some kind of continued customs union with the EU, for which the bloc would be likely to demand money and legal oversight in return.
The EU also sees the need for what it calls a “phasing-out and phasing-in” period, although it insists it must be for a fixed time and can only happen if there’s agreement on what the final relationship looks like.
Barnier has warned that a “frictionless” trade deal isn’t possible if Britain leaves the single market.
May said in March that Britain would leave the European Atomic Energy Community. But that decision drew opposition from the nuclear industry and from May’s own Conservative Party.
The criticism was fanned by reports that the transportation of radioactive materials used to diagnose and treat cancer would be jeopardised.
Davis suggested last week that the UK might seek an associate membership of Euratom. But that could test his red line over ending the freedom of movement of people.
The EU and UK will seek to agree on broad principles on the Irish border dilemma to prevent the search for a solution holding up the wider Brexit talks, four people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg last week.
The principles will go a little further than the negotiating directives published by the EU in May, the people said.
Germany questions the need for a totally open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland following Brexit.
An accord would avoid closing off options on the border issue, allowing it to be parked until later in the negotiations when the shape of a future trade deal between the two sides is clearer, the people said.
The issue laid dormant as officials focused on less controversial issues.
But it blew up again last week when British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the EU could “go whistle” because “the sums that I have seen that they propose to demand from this country seem to me to be extortionate.”
Barnier responded by questioning whether the UK accepts there is a reckoning at all and repeating that the EU just wants Britain to cover the financial obligations it made as a member.
“I’m not hearing any whistling, just the clock ticking,” he said.
The UK seemed to step back on Thursday when a written statement to Parliament referred explicitly to a “financial settlement,” with the government recognising “the UK has obligations to the EU.”
Even so, calculating a final amount won’t be easy. — Bloomberg