This April, a month before notification of Article 50 was sent to Brussels, the European Council outlined how the negotiations over Brexit were to be undertaken. They described three stages: the EU and UK would work through each in turn before moving on to the next.
For the first stage, we would negotiate over three key issues: the UK’s outstanding ‘divorce bill’, second, we would reach agreement over the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, and of UK citizens on the continent; last, agreement would have to be reached on the border in Northern Ireland. As it stands, the UK has offered nothing with regards to any of these. For that reason, the talks are currently “deadlocked” according to Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
The overarching theme here is that there is no precedent for an agreement which increases trade barriers between nations. Radical Brexiteers in the parliamentary Tory party want the maximum barriers possible – even a ‘no deal’ outcome that would wreck the economy and cripple the country. Whether or not Theresa May is in that camp is not clear- but what is clear is that most of her parliamentary party are. That puts the Prime Minister in a bind: paying our contribution to the EU budget would be seen as a capitulation by her party. To guarantee the rights of EU citizens already living in Britain could hamper post-Brexit efforts to reduce immigration and would also shatter her already fragile relationship with her backbenchers.
Lastly, and most explosively, there are three outcomes to the situation in Northern Ireland: either Britain stays in the customs union, or a hard border must appear in the Irish Sea or at the Republic’s border. The first of these is, again, anathema to the Tory Party, and unfortunately the last two are unacceptable to those most wonderful of the agreed partners, the DUP. The DUP, by the way, also want Britain to leave the customs union. You can see the mess our PM finds herself in. Perhaps, if the EU were to allow talks to move on to trade, May could make progress enough to generate political capital of her own and make concessions on the three issues.
Unfortunately, the simple fact remains that the EU’s leaders have no particular reason to agree to this move. Why should they? Theresa May’s control over her party, or lack thereof, is of no concern to Macron or Merkel. For the European Council (the domestic leaders) to allow Barnier the freedom to move forward, she must convince them to do something in which they gain no benefit in that regard. The EU would suffer little should Britain crash out with no deal – its constituent countries even less so. So it is good that in recent news the European Council has signalled that it will begin internal preparatory work for moving on to trade talks. However, until the problems outlined above are solved, it appears this means nothing. While the Tory backbenchers stamp their feet, the clock ticks on to 2019, when as it stands we will crash out of the EU and into an unprecedented, deep, and extended economic crisis. Worth it to laugh at ‘Moggmentum’ though.