Analysis: Crunch time for the UK in Brexit talks

UK negotiators are already in a race against time as Brexit talks get real, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis

Brexit talks have already reached a crucial stage in Brussels. Picture: AP
Brexit talks have already reached a crucial stage in Brussels. Picture: AP

There was no sense of history or occasion yesterday as David Davis and Barnier met for a handshake in front of the cameras in the lobby of the Berlaymont building, the European Commission’s HQ.

But the real crunch time is now, even though Brexit day is still more than 18 months away. We will know in the next eight weeks whether a deal is likely or not.

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If there is sufficient compromise on the Brexit Bill, citizens’ rights and Northern Ireland – probably the three toughest issues on the agenda – then the omens are good for talks to sketch out a trade deal and agree a transition period to allow time for it to be fully negotiated. If not, then those talks can’t even begin, and the risk of the whole process collapsing rises significantly.

Despite the urgency, no one knows at what pace talks will unfold. As officials admit behind the scenes, this has never been done before.

The task for the UK’s 98 negotiators is huge. On Northern Ireland, two senior figures – Olly Robbins and Sabine Weyand – between them must reach an agreement on the implications of Brexit for the Good Friday Agreement and the Common Travel Area.

The position they reach has to appeal to two sides of a dispute that has brought down the Stormont executive, with little hope of resolution.

On citizens’ rights, the two sides have bridge a red line on who guarantees the status of EU nationals, with the UK saying it cannot be the European court, and the EU saying it cannot be anyone else.

And on money, they have to find an agreement on potentially the most politically explosive part of the Brexit settlement within a matter of weeks, with the government so far unwilling to articulate a clear position on how many billions it is happy to pay.

The score when it comes to position papers is Europe nine, UK four. The sense of the UK government turning up without having done its homework has not helped by the photo of Barnier and Davis sitting at a conference table flanked by deputies, with the EU side leaning on stacks of briefing notes while team UK were empty handed. British officials insist they will set out their stance on key issues when they are ready to.

On the EU side, the debate still raging in the UK over what kind of Brexit should be pursued is so distant as to be irrelevant. Questions over whether Scotland and Wales should get a seat at the negotiating table, and what the impact would be if devolved administrations rejected key Brexit legislation, are internal issues for the UK.

EU officials are confident in the positions they have set out, and ready to have them probed in negotiations. The UK side says it wants to query the proposed multi-billion pound Brexit bill line-by-line. They can go right ahead, is the reply – we have all the answers.