‘Brexit’ Talks Open in Brussels, With a Mountain to Climb – New York Times
Entering the talks, David Davis, Britain’s secretary of state for exiting the European Union, known as “Brexit,” said that he aimed for “a positive and constructive tone, determined to build a strong and special partnership” with “our European allies and friends.”
Michel Barnier, Europe’s chief negotiator, called for constructive talks, but he focused on the need to agree on an agenda, citing the bloc’s preferred priorities. “We must first tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit — first, for citizens, but also for the beneficiaries of E.U. policies and for the impact on borders, in particular Ireland,” he said.
Mr. Barnier, who comes from France’s mountainous Savoie region, presented Mr. Davis with a hiking stick, presumably implying a long, steep route ahead.
In a news conference on Monday evening after the talks, both men said that the atmosphere had been good.
The European Union wants to settle the rights of its citizens now living in Britain and to agree on a form of arbitration in disputes. It also wants Britain to pay the union a large but negotiable sum, possibly 40 billion to 60 billion euros ($45 billion to $67 billion) or more, probably spread out over five years. Both sides want to preserve an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which will stay in the bloc, while figuring out how to handle customs issues there.
Only after European officials in Brussels deem that “sufficient progress” has been made, does the union want to begin discussing a future relationship with a post-Brexit Britain.
Mrs. May has often said that she wants to hold those talks in parallel with the divorce. But with her current political difficulties — having lost her party’s parliamentary majority in an election she called — more time to think through Britain’s preferences for the future may be welcome.
Mrs. May announced a “hard Brexit,” with Britain outside both the European single market and its customs union. But she did not get a clear mandate for that at the polls, with Britons favoring closer continuing ties to the bloc becoming more vocal. But there is considerable confusion in Britain about how the European Union works.
And as long as controlling migration remains at the core of Britain’s position, backed by both Mrs. May’s Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party, continuing access to the single market would seem to be impossible.
Staying in the customs union would ease the Irish border problem, but would cover only about 20 percent of the British economy, which is mostly built on services, not goods. It would also prevent Britain from making its own trade deals.
So there seems to be growing pressure on Mrs. May to choose a longer transition, lasting well past the 2019 date, that would keep Britain adhering to the single market and paying money to Brussels, as Norway does, while it negotiates a comprehensive free-trade deal. That process could take five years or more.
But all that is for the future. Right now, Mrs. May has pressing political problems like fending off a party leadership challenge, completing a deal to keep her minority government in power, and dealing with the fallout from recent terrorist attacks and a horrible fire.
“The Europeans are very clear about their position on the Brexit talks, but it’s very difficult to see any such clarity on the British side, since there might not even be the same government there in a few months’ time,” said Fabian Zuleeg, director of the European Policy Center, a research organization in Brussels. “Any deal reached in Brussels might not even politically pass the British Parliament, and then we end up with a chaotic exit.”
For the Europeans, Brexit is a distraction. Britain’s departure will be a considerable blow, but the union has other problems, including an aggressive Russia, a migrant crisis, porous borders and importantly, an ambivalent if not hostile President Trump.
There has been some good news, like a gathering economic recovery and an ebbing of the populist challenge. European officials are breathing a bit easier with the smashing electoral victory of France’s new pro-Europe president, Emmanuel Macron, and with signs that Angela Merkel will win another term as chancellor of Germany in September.
It is also clear that Europe’s big decisions on Brexit will be made by member governments and will probably come only after the German elections. So there is time for Britain to get its act together and for the Europeans to see whether Mrs. May will survive in office.
Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, a proponent of Brexit, told reporters in Luxembourg on Monday that there would be arguments with Brussels over money and much else. “But I think the most important thing about us now is for us to look to the horizon,” he said cheerily, adding, “I think, in the long run, this will be good for the U.K. and good for the rest of Europe.”
Still, Britain’s negotiating position is weaker now. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s coordinator for Brexit, said time was running out.
“I am glad that we are sticking to the negotiating timetable, which is already quite tight,” he said. “Let’s now, first of all, make progress in the field of citizens’ rights and create legal certainty for both our people and our companies.”
Mr. Zuleeg of the European Policy Center noted that Britain had already lost influence over policy issues in the union. “In many ways, Brussels has already moved on,” he said.
Mrs. May plans to attend a European Council summit meeting in Brussels on Thursday, where she is bound to encounter a degree of annoyance with her new political vulnerability, mixed with some sympathy. The German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, noted in a newspaper interview published on Sunday that by calling and then losing a snap election, Mrs. May had created a “difficult, even impossible situation, without clear majorities and clear negotiation strategy.”
He added: “We will negotiate fairly, and fair means that we want to keep the British as close as possible to the E.U. — but never at the price that we divide the remaining 27 E.U. states.”
Mr. Gabriel is an important member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, a junior member of the current governing coalition, and his party his is trying to unseat Mrs. Merkel in September. So, like Mr. Johnson and Mrs. May, he speaks these days as much for his party as for his government.