Brexit talks: high spirits, but little substance

Brexit talks are still stuck in the mud, although the mood has lightened somewhat. Both chief negotiators have indicated a “new dynamic”, which is due particularly to statements made by Prime Minister Theresa May during her keynote speech last week in Florence. Britain’s Brexit negotiator David Davis even spoke of “decisive steps” and “considerable progress” over the past few days.

His counterpart, Michel Barnier, did not share this (almost euphoric) assessment. He left no doubt that there are still major differences between the two sides, underlining that the negotiating parties are still far from making sufficient progress in terms of the divorce process.

The assessment of progress with regard to the divorce process will set the tone for the future course of negotiations. The UK is pushing for the potential structure of the future partnership and trade relationships to be put on the agenda for talks at the end of October as originally scheduled. The condition laid down by Brussels for this second phase is that “significant progress in separation issues” must be observed. In mid-October, the Heads of State and Government of the 27 remaining EU member states will decide whether this has been achieved at a summit. It is therefore little wonder, then, that David Davis is playing up the extent of the progress made in the negotiations and is trying to increase pressure on his counterparts.

As things stand, if the EU summit participants were to signal the second phase of negotiations it would almost certainly damage their reputation and weaken their negotiating position. In any case, Michel Barnier’s statements do not suggest that he has seen adequate progress. Moreover, in the weeks to come, the European Parliament could pass a resolution recommending that Heads of State and Government do not enter into the next phase of the negotiations.

There is still one straw left at which the UK could clutch in order to turn the tables: the negotiating parties will meet for the next round of talks in around 10 days’ time. If a breakthrough were to be achieved here, it may yet pave the way for talks about the future partnership. However, it seems safe to say that this is very unlikely to be achieved in all three key themes (the rights of EU citizens already living in the UK, the “divorce bill” and the Irish border).

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