And so it begins. ‘It’ being preliminary discussions between the UK and the EU as the countdown to the proposed date of triggering Article 50 commences.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, has had a busy week to date. He has embarked on a tour of Brussels and Strasbourg, meeting key members of the EU institutions’ negotiation teams. He seemingly met with different receptions across both days.
Mr Davis went to Brussels on Monday. This marked his first time engaging in EU talks since his appointment to post last summer.
Speaking about Monday’s trip, a UK government spokesperson had said Mr Davis would hold talks with “with key figures as the U.K. government prepares for the formal triggering of Article 50,” which also included a trip to the UK’s Permanent Representation to the EU.
The spokesperson then added that the meetings would “not seek to open negotiations” but rather sought “to lay the ground for a constructive dialogue and a smooth and orderly exit which is in the interests of all parties.”
Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s main Brexit negotiator, tweeted yesterday that he had met with Mr Davis. It appeared as though the talks had gone smoothly.
It was anticipated that Mr Davis would summarise his first talks sessions with EU representatives by saying he wanted:
“…to begin the work of ensuring we have positive, strong and productive relationship with our closest neighbors … I am confident that by working together we will be able to secure a deal that works in the mutual interests of the UK and the rest of the European Union.”
After Brussels, Mr Davis ventured to Strasbourg, which this week hosts a European Parliament plenary session. Strasbourg however appeared to to take a different view of the talks. For Mr Davis went to Strasbourg, but Mr Davis also met one Guy Verhofstadt, the designated chief negotiator for the European Parliament.
The initial meeting between the two has been described as ‘frosty‘. And frankly, I am not surprised in the slightest.
It should be recalled that back in September, Mr Davis was giving evidence before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee at Westminster. He was unsurprisingly asked about his expectations of the future negotiations with the EU, and replied he saw nothing to fear in any outcome. Mr Davis was also asked about Mr Verhofstadt. He indulged in Biblical-inspired humour: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Matthew 16:23 continues with Jesus saying to Peter “you are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Evidently Mr Davis saw Mr Verhofstadt, and his four freedoms protectionist stance, as a hindrance. The Brexit Secretary then proceeded to dismiss an ultimatum issued by his counterpart, that the UK must continue to accept open door immigration in exchange for EU single market access.
It is rather understandable then that Mr Verhofstadt greeted Mr Davis on Tuesday with “welcome to Hell”. Perhaps the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator could have pulled out a Shakespearan quote, given the Shakespearan-scale drama the EU referendum has started. I was thinking of The Tempest’s immortal words: ‘Hell is empty/And all the devils are here’.
The mood reportedly did improve throughout the meeting in Strasbourg: Mr Verhofstadt and Mr Davis said they reached agreeent that the UK should leave the EU before the European elections in 2019. Mr Davis ventured May 2017 would be the starting point for detailed negotiations.
“We agreed … that the process needs to start as early as possible and finish in any case before the next European elections … The window for negotiations is more or less 14-15 months, let’s be honest.”
Mr Verhofstadt said his priorty during the negotiations would be protecting the EU’s four freedoms. (Cue a revision course for law students in EU internal market law.) The former Belgian Prime Minister told his counterpart that access to the EU single market cannot be severed from the interdependent right of EU citizens to freedom of movement within the EU.
Mr Verhofstadt moved to reassure those concerned about a forced hard Brexit, saying that in the interest of all involved citizens, the end result of the negotiations had “to be a close partnership between EU and UK”. It was his belief that the negotiation period should be utilised by the EU as an opportunity to “work on a reformed, effective EU” going forward.
Moreover, according to a spokesperson, Mr Verhofstadt also said he wants to ensure that the 48 percent of UK voters who voted Remain will have their rights protected. Great news for Northern Ireland and for Scotland. (Note that my neck of the woods voted to Remain by 56%. We are adamant to have our voice heard and respected on this.)
As soon as Mr Verhofstadt had mentioned his view that negotiations would require a window of around 14 to 15 months, quelle surprise, the UK right-wing press had a field day.
“Britain will be given just 14 months to negotiate its exit package with the EU,” the Express exclaimed in apparent horror. It was apparently concerned that this timeframe was not sufficient to trash out a deal, and would result in a transitional deal only. Yet the Express has just published an article online urging for the UK’s withdrawal, on the basis that ‘longer we stay, more we pay‘. So maybe it is content with such a proposed timeframe after all. Although goodness knows with the Express. It recently published an online article about how Tim Roth apparently ‘hints’ Brexit could see a return of the ‘DEATH PENALTY‘. The actor actually said ‘reinstating the death penalty is an attractive proposition for the extreme right wing’. But when in doubt, the Express will always caps lock it out.
If anything, the past two days have shown that whenever the UK does trigger Article 50, and negotiations do commence, it will prove to be a mammoth task. The EU’s various negotiators have proven they will not cede to UK demands to remain within the single market, yet also be permitted to restrict free movement of citizens. Moreover, it is clear that whilst the EU is not seeking to insist upon a hard Brexit, it is not seeking to give the UK an easy ride, either.
‘Hell is empty/And all the devils are here’. We must wait until March 2017 to see if this quote rings true, and if the negotiations will indeed prove to be a tempest.