Negotiating a Brexit deal with 27 governments was always going to be a logistical challenge.
To project the semblance of EU unity, Michel Barnier was appointed as chief negotiator for the whole bloc. Bizarrely, this role comes with little actual negotiating power – Barnier can speak for the EU leaders within rigid parameters. And what they have tasked him to deliver is an exit agreement – and no more.
But David Davis is absolutely right to say that many aspects of such an agreement are dependent on what happens next. And this is proving a sticking point. The UK is not going to agree to write the EU a blank cheque without assurances that a trade deal can and will be hammered out, while Barnier is not authorised to make such assurances until the UK commits to paying – “a very disturbing state of deadlock”, as the EU negotiator lamented yesterday.
That is not to say progress is as unattainable as some fear. There is a simple solution: for the EU’s national leaders to give their representative more flexibility, broadening the scope of the talks.
Barnier himself seems aware of this: last week, there were reports from diplomats of Barnier pushing for the power to begin trade talks, only to be met with fierce resistance from Germany.
However, this is not an insurmountable issue. Frustration at the slow pace of progress is intensifying, in the EU as well as the UK, and there is growing expectation that Barnier will be given the nod to move talks on in time for December’s EU Council meeting.
German rigidity should ease somewhat once Angela Merkel recovers from her election setback and forms a coalition government, and there is political pressure in other EU nations to get things moving – which is, as Davis said yesterday, what Britain is ready and waiting for.
Despite this, the UK government still has a responsibility to begin planning for a “no deal” outcome – and that means spending money. Chancellor Philip Hammond’s insistence earlier this week that he would wait until the last possible moment to spend taxpayer funds on contingency plans is irresponsible and undermines the Prime Minister.
A solid – and financially-backed – plan would not only give the UK extra leverage in the negotiations (as it is far easier to claim that you are prepared to walk away if you actually have the means to do so), but would also be a much-needed insurance policy. Yes, it might be expensive, but the costs of acting too late could be far worse. Time to get serious – on all sides.