At this stage, the UK and EU can’t afford to delay trade talks

Christian May
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Brexit secretary David Davis is making a concerted effort to push the EU off its preferred negotiation path (Source: Getty)

After a summer dominated by hyped-up talk of cabinet divisions and a Brexit in peril, plans are beginning to emerge and a strategy is starting to take shape.

That it took over a year to reach this point is lamentable evidence of a civil service caught with its trousers down by the referendum result and, it must be said, of a Leave campaign so obsessed with the ‘what’ that it paid little attention to the ‘how’.

Nevertheless, here we are, 12 months on and with a flurry of government position papers on topics ranging from data protection and the regulation of goods to judicial cooperation and dispute resolution. But though the detail behind the government’s ambition is welcome, of more significance is what the sudden hike in activity represents.

Read more: Ministers say UK will make "sufficient progress" in Brexit talks by October

The Brexit secretary, David Davis, is making a concerted effort to push the EU off its preferred negotiation path, which currently involves settling the terms of exit before discussing any new trading arrangements. Davis may find the EU, in the form of Michel Barnier, reluctant to change course but he is right to make the argument. As he said over the weekend, “many questions around our withdrawal are inextricably linked to our future relationship”.

Davis cites the border with the Republic of Ireland as a prime example, where “it is simply not possible to reach a near-final agreement on the border issue until we’ve begun to talk about how our future customs arrangements will work”.

The EU recently softened its language, so rather than insisting all divorce matters are settled before discussing trade, Barnier now demands that “sufficient progress” is made.

Read more: The five areas of Brexit where we're about to get more clarity

Another area where the terms of exit are linked with a future deal is the powerhouse of the UK economy: the services sector. The City is waiting for a position paper of its own, setting out the government’s proposals on financial and professional services.

The matter is of critical importance to the EU, too, whose own economic fortunes are bound up with those of the City. Pragmatic voices on the continent, and there are many, recognise precisely this and so don’t be surprised if Barnier and his colleagues come around, slowly, to the Brexit secretary’s way of thinking.

The City is waiting for that conversation to happen, and patience is wearing thin.

Read more: Michel Barnier tells EU members trade talks may be delayed over Brexit bill

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