Tuesday 23 October 2018

EU leaders being more helpful to each other is not enough to mask the lack of progress on talks

Stock photo: PA
Stock photo: PA
John Downing

John Downing

So, just what did the EU leaders decide over two days in Brussels? Britain wanted talks now on the future EU-UK trade relationship after Brexit. The other 27 leaders insisted three big issues must be sorted first.

The rights of EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU, after Brexit; arrangements for the Border in Ireland; and UK payments to the EU as it leaves. To try to end the deadlock, the EU partners agreed to start working among themselves on a joint position on future EU-UK relations. That could get them ready to tackle the issue sooner, possibly by December.

Is that really progress?

Yes, in a small way. It's also good that they are trying to be helpful to one another. But the fundamental problems remain, especially British Prime Minister Theresa May's really tough position at home. The EU is really fixated on the divorce bill being sorted. Some extremists in her Conservative Party insist they must pay nothing.

Is Britain really so bad? And why should it pay to quit?

Yes, it is bad. It has spent five bouts of talks trying to change the rules rather than negotiating. The exit bill is about honouring existing commitments into the future, and contributing to whatever benefits might arise in the new EU-UK relationship. On this, Britain does have grounds when it says it needs to know that relationship first.

How much is the Brexit divorce bill anyway?

Depends on the calculation formula, which is the focus of negotiations. Figures in Brussels vary from €60bn-€100bn. Mrs May is understood to have offered €20bn per year for two years. The gap is not huge and the EU formula of phasing things over years can apply. But the big issue is the British politics of this one.

Is there any good news for Ireland here?

We must struggle to find it. The Border issue is clearly recognised, which helps, but is no guarantee.

Mrs May has again said there will be "no physical infrastructure" on the Border. That's not bad news in itself. But it does imply that an electronic border could still apply for goods crossing that Border. That could still mean customs controls and tariffs with extra costs to business. Mrs May also talks of the need to recognise the importance of the North's peace process.

That's good to hear. But again guarantees nothing.

So, what are the next moves?

The big date to watch is the next EU leaders' summit on December 14 and 15 in Brussels. In an ideal world, Ireland should get some idea of how this country's mammoth trade with the UK would fare in a post-Brexit world. That outcome also enmeshes with the Border issue.

But that also assumes that real progress can be made on the big three issues cited above - especially the divorce bill. The leaders being more polite and helpful to one another will not be enough to forge progress here.

Irish Independent

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