The UK rejects the EU timetable for negotiations. A border solution will have to wait

A pat on the back is due for Slugger for anticipating this reaction  to the EU negotiating guidelines. The FT (£)  has picked up Brexit Secretary David Davis’s interview on ITV’s Peston show yesterday  

How on earth do you resolve the issue of the border with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland unless you know what our general borders policy is, what the customs agreement is, what our trade agreement is?” he told ITV’s Robert Peston. “It’s wholly illogical.”

Despite the warm words from EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier  on his visit to Dublin and the  border last week, the logic of this point is surely on the British side. Thereafter, in the view of the FT and many others , the force is with the EU.

Just now, Mrs May seems to have lost the argument over sequencing, namely  that negotiations on EU citizens’ rights, the “divorce  Bill” and the Irish  border can be largely settled alongside progress on a new free trade relationship as good or better than the status quo, by the time the UK  is due to leave in March 2019.

The  EU position remains, that the “divorce “   the size of  the  British bill, and free movement, plus the special position of Ireland, have to be settled before moving in to the new relationship on trade.

The  best outcome by March 2019 is a political statement on progress  and the way ahead  accompanied by a transition period of  about three years. A “cliff edge”  suddenly appearing by March 2109 is the nightmare  if Britain suddenly defaulted to a far more complicated chaos than WTO rules alone.

The EU would seem to have the stronger hand not only because it’s one against twenty seven, but because they’ve  managed to stick together through the strains of  Greek bailout  and the refugee crisis and haven’t so far  succumbed to right populism.  Whatever happens in the forthcoming German and French parliamentary elections,  EU solidarity is proving resilient and is therefore unlikely to be  fragmented by Brexit.

A large Conservative majority will not change the EU’s stance although it might help  May  to accept some uncomfortable compromises  like jurisdiction over a deal  by the EFTA court. This might appeal if special status for NI entailed affiliation to EFTA or the European Economic Area (EEA)  which provide for looser relationships with the EU than full membership.

From the report of David Davis’s Peston  interview

 David Davis has rejected the EU’s timetable for Brexit talks, saying that the UK would be disadvantaged by an early agreement regarding its financial obligations and the future status of the Northern Irish border. “That’ll be the row of the summer,” the Brexit secretary said on Sunday. The EU has earmarked three issues that it says will require an early agreement in the Brexit negotiations: the rights of EU nationals living in the UK; the UK’s “exit” payment to the EU; and the Northern Irish border. Mr Davis said the EU’s proposed timetable would back Britain into a corner on the two latter issues, which he called “the most difficult bit” of negotiations.

“How on earth do you resolve the issue of the border with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland unless you know what our general borders policy is, what the customs agreement is, what our trade agreement is?” he told ITV’s Robert Peston. “It’s wholly illogical.” The UK would only look for an early agreement on migrants’ rights by “early autumn”, but would otherwise argue that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed, he said. How on earth do you resolve the issue of the border with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland unless you know what our general borders policy is, what the customs agreement is, what our trade agreement is?

Mr Davis gave some detail on how EU nationals living in the UK might be treated after Brexit, saying that the government wanted an agreement that “effectively freezes” their rights. “They’ll have the right to welfare, the right to healthcare, the right to pensions, as they would if they were permanent residents,” he said. “The only rights they wouldn’t have are those citizenship rights — the right to vote in a general election.”

“There will be an argument over the final detail … such as whether the European Court of Justice oversees their rights after we’ve left … We’ll have an argument about that.” Mr Davis suggested there would be little progress in Brexit negotiations during the summer months, saying it was the “least useful time in dealing with Brussels”.

The appeal of ETFA   is  growing for  Nicola Sturgeon, presumably to avoid the cliff edge of a hard Brexit and to create transition terms that might suit an independent Scotland. In real life however for this  to become compatible with the UK’s government’s  principled stance on uniformity for  the whole UK  – ( or at least GB) – tthe EU would either have to agree the same terms for England and Wales and possibly Northern Ireland,  or the clamour for Indref2  would have become  irresistible  by the 2019 EU divorce date.

Sturgeon has now indicated she may not seek immediate reentry to the EU after independence after all, confirming speculation she could instead propose Scotland takes the “Norway option” by joining the Efta free trade area instead.

Sturgeon also indicated that even if she chose to recommend Scotland immediately seeks membership of the EU, it could be forced to reapply from scratch after independence and after the UK leaves the EU.

In her reference to Scotland “regaining” membership, Sturgeon confirmed previous hints she accepts she may have to retreat from her preferred timescale of staging a referendum between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, before Brexit takes place.

 

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London