The European Council summit has ended broadly as expected. In their press conference Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker explained that the Council has decided sufficient progress has not been made to move onto the next phase of negotiations, which would discuss trade and transition. However, the Council has given the green light for the EU to begin “internal preparatory discussions,” on matters relating to the next phase of negotiations.
It was clear Donald Tusk was trying to emphasise positive progress has been made and the media narrative of deadlock was “exaggerated.” This much more positive tone is very welcome. It seems Jeremy Corbyn’s trip to Brussels this week to throw a spanner in the works has not had the intended effect.
On Friday morning the Prime Minister gave a measured, but upbeat, response to the discussions at the summit. Theresa May said she was “optimistic and positive” on the progress which has been made, but explained “I know we still have some way to go.” On the Divorce Bill she made it clear the UK Government will fulfil its obligation to the British Taxpayer, going through financial proposals “line by line”.
This is a modestly encouraging outcome, with some positive aspects. EU leaders at this summit were never going to give the UK everything it wanted. As it must be stressed, this simply isn’t how negotiations work. Face must be saved. Concessions given have to be small, or be able to be spun in such a fashion as to allow both sides to posture their respective strength.
Nonetheless, it’s clear a good number of member states are now ready to move on to trade talks. This week both Germany and Sweden have been reported to be drawing up plans for a free trade deal with the UK. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also made positive remarks about Brexit talks showing “encouraging” signs of progress. Given some of the more rancorous rhetoric which has emanated from Brussels since the beginning of negotiations this is good news.
It should be remembered though, as Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin pointed out, the real deadline for sufficient progress is March 2018. Sufficient progress on trade talks has to be made by then, otherwise the uncertainty for business will become too burdensome and the government will have to seriously consider walking away from the negotiating table and start implementing its preparations for a No Deal Brexit.
Overall, it seems Theresa May’s Florence speech in late September has helped moved negotiations on to a better footing. Donald Tusk also said today he believes there is now a more optimistic atmosphere.
However, although today’s European Council comments are a step in the right direction, if the EU maintains its slow pace and unreasonably high demands for a divorce bill, it is certainly plausible that the EU could attempt to further delay the next phase of negotiations in December. If this were to happen Theresa May and the Cabinet would have to seriously consider if the best way to Get Britain Out is to simply walk away from the negotiating table.