A year on from the pivotal vote by the UK to leave the EU, and the Brexit negotiations finally began today. David Davis met with Michel Barnier earlier to today to formally open the talks, followed by a working lunch, before negotiators broke out into working groups for the afternoon. The group will meet every four weeks until October 2018, to allow enough time for the deal to be ratified before March 2019 when the UK is due to officially leave the EU.
Both sides have spoken of the need to secure a good deal, with David Davis has committing to build “a deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU”. However, there are a number of contentious issues to address upfront. For this first meeting, Mr Barnier stated this morning that today the UK and EU would “…identify priorities and the timetable that will allow [him] to report to the European Council later this week that we have a constructive start to negotiations.” As has been made clear over the past months, the sequencing to the Brexit negotiations has been one of the major bones of contention, with the EU wanting key issues to be settled prior to discussing future trade deals. Only once EU negotiators believe sufficient progress has been made will talks move onto phase two – the future relationship. This is contrary to UK calls for the withdrawal agreement and the future relationship to be agreed in parallel. It remains to be seen whether a timetable can indeed be set.
The EU has set out position papers on the key withdrawal issues – citizens’ rights and the ‘divorce bill’ – and has made it clear that it expects the Irish border to remain open. The UK has produced a 75 page Brexit white paper which, although lengthy, has been criticised for being light on detail. Furthermore, the strategy outlined by Theresa May at the start of her premiership is also now in doubt as the Government no longer has a majority in the House of Commons. While some Ministers, such as Philip Hammond, have sought to reassert the argument for a softer Brexit, Brexiteers have argued that any backtracking “would rightly be seen as a betrayal of trust”. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has stated “I hope that the British will be able to form as soon as possible a stable government. I don’t think that things now have become easier but we are ready.”
While the start of Brexit talks has not been delayed, as some had feared, it is not clear how the current uncertainty in the UK this will affect the its negotiating position. EU negotiators have already expressed doubts about the pace of progress and Michel Barnier has described today’s meeting as “window dressing”.
Despite this, work is continuing behind the scenes in Brussels, with the Council announcing that the upcoming June meeting will see the Ministers address the relocation of the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines’ Agency in their talks. Michel Barnier is due to report back to EU leaders in October on whether sufficient progress has been made to move on Phase 2.