Brexit negotiations need to start focusing on transition and trade

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It's time Davis and Barnier talked about trade (Source: Getty)

They say the Devil makes works for idle hands, and this certainly seems to be the case in British politics.

One of the consequences of the EU's refusal to discuss trade arrangements or the inevitable transition period is that Westminster is a frothing cauldron of competing Brexit opinions – and with the EU not listening, the voices in London are shouting over each other.

Since Boris Johnson's colourful, if somewhat incendiary, intervention over the weekend competing voices in Whitehall have grown from a rumble to a roar. The lay of the ground appears to be that chancellor Philip Hammond and home secretary Amber Rudd (along with top civil servants) favour a longer transition period with a relationship resembling that enjoyed by members of the European Economic Area, albeit it with some modifications. Boris and Michael Gove are said to prefer a cleaner break with a bespoke free trade agreement along the lines of the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.

Top Brexit wonk Henry Newman, of Open Europe, points out that “EEA light” (as the softer option has become known) would mean “all the costs of Brexit and few opportunities” - since it would tie the UK to EU regulations. A logical compromise would be a longer transition period leading to a bespoke and comprehensive free trade agreement. As for the details of any deal, Hammond has told the City that when it comes to financial services, he will address concerns by “making forward-leaning proposals” on cooperation and agreed standards - with the aim of securing a bespoke deal for the services sector.

However, this conversation (encouraging as it may sound) is currently for the birds if formal talks cannot get beyond the top-ticket items of the Irish border and the UK's so-called exit fee. That's why all eyes will be on Theresa May on Friday when she makes her speech in Florence. It's expected that she will make a bold move to break the deadlock in negotiations and move the talks on to trade. If she does indeed offer an olive branch, the Europeans must accept it and then abandon their rigid commitment to the sequencing of talks. It is high time that both sides began to consider the terms of a new relationship, alongside the divorce proceedings.