It took an all-nighter (and not the fun kind) but British and EU officials have finally found each other.
They’ve broadly agreed the terms for Britain’s exit from the EU. The talks should now enter the next stage, which is Britain’s future relationship with the EU27.
Many feared the deadlock in the talks wouldn’t be broken. Now that is has, the news has for the most part been positively received.
The pound rose on the news and many congratulated Prime Minister Theresa May on achieving “sufficient progress” before the end of the year.
Even ardent Brexiters Boris Johnson and Michael Gove could bring themselves to not undermine their own PM for once.
Only former Ukip leader Nigel Farage called the talks so far a “humiliation”. Oh well, you can’t keep everyone happy.
Relief is the prevailing emotion, but it won’t last long. The next phase is expected to be even tougher.
The negotiation teams have finished their appetiser, now what’s for dinner?
The “easy part” done
A few weeks ago, Brexit minister David Davis estimated the chances of a December breakthrough in the talks as “fifty-fifty”.
I can picture Theresa May heaving a big sigh of relief when she learned the negotiations can finally move on to the next point on the agenda.
However, EU Council president Donald Tusk was quick to inject a bit of realism to the mildly euphoric press statements.
Let’s not forget this was supposed to be the easy part of the negotiations and it took nine months.
“We have de facto less than a year,” said Tusk. Britain leaves the EU in March 2019, but any deal will have to be approved by Westminster and the European parliament.
If we want to get an idea of how the next phase will go, we only need to look at what’s happened since May sent Brussels formal notice of Britain’s departure.
Though the game is still in progress, one look at the scoreboard makes it clear which side is on top.
Here are the highlights of the talks so far:
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tells the EU to “go whistle” over the Brexit bill. Britain ends up paying up to €55bn to honour its outstanding obligations.
Brexit minister David Davis says Britain won’t pay “a penny” after March 2019. Britain finally continues to fully contribute to the EU budget in 2019 and 2020.
The European Court of Justice’s role ends after the transition, says PM Theresa May. Actually no, the ECJ will still have jurisdiction in post-Brexit Britain.
And the Irish border stays open no matter what. If there’s no other way, Britain has no choice but to stick to EU single market and customs union rules.
It’s an entirely predictable outcome. Britain’s plea to Brussels to be flexible has fallen on deaf ears.
“The EU above all else is a union built on laws, with the legal acquis applied evenly across member states,” writes Philip Stephens in the Financial Times.
“When the British side calls for creativity and pragmatism in setting the parameters for a future settlement, its interlocutors turn to the rule book.
“None is more assiduous than German chancellor Angela Merkel in dismissing suggestions that the rules might be bent if not broken in Britain’s favour.”
Hopes that the EU will be any more lenient in the next phase of the talks can go out of the window. It isn’t going to offer Britain a much desired “bespoke” deal for old times’ sake.
The EU has a set menu – take it or leave it.
There’s no point in arguing the EU is just being spiteful. When roles are reversed, opinions are too.
If I remember correctly Westminster wasn’t going to let Scotland keep the pound as its currency if it left the United Kingdom either.
When you’re the bigger party and you have leverage over your smaller opponent, you’d be a fool not to use it.
Another thing that gives the EU a big advantage over Britain is that it can present itself as one united force.
An example would be Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte telling farmers and horticulturists to brace themselves for a hard Brexit scenario.
That says a lot. Britain is an important trading partner for the Netherlands. A big chunk of agriculture exports is sent across the Channel each year. Yet the Dutch don’t appeal for a special deal on agriculture.
You could say the Dutch lack the political clout to change the EU’s position anyway, but you’d be missing the point. No EU state has asked for special treatment.
British politicians were banking on German carmakers and Italian wine producers to influence the EU’s hard line. So far they’re keeping quiet.
The EU sticks together even if a hard stance doesn’t necessarily help individual members or sectors. The same can’t be said of Britain.
“Brexit means Brexit” doesn’t seem to work for Cornwall or Grimsby even though both voted to leave the EU.
And if Northern Ireland can get a special deal, Scotland, Wales and London want one too.
It doesn’t help that the British government can’t play as a team.
May and Davis say “no deal is better than a bad deal.” The next day Chancellor Philip Hammond opposes this stance and Home Secretary Amber Rudd calls the scenario “unthinkable”.
That’s the essential difference to me in the talks so far. The EU sits at the table as one, while May is continuously being tackled by her own teammates.
It’s a weakness that I expect the EU will continue to exploit in the next phase of the negotiations.