The Cable

Britain Starts Brexit Talks With a Whimper, Not a Bang

The contentious first day of talks ended with London conceding on what it promised would be the “row of the summer.”


If the fight over Britain’s departure from Europe promises to be a political tug-of-war of the highest order, the first day of Brexit negotiations did not go well for the United Kingdom.

David Davis, the Brexit secretary, entered negotiations with the European Union with the hopes that talks of a trade deal would begin immediately, and that discussion on the so-called exit bill — the political and financial terms on which London will leave the EU — would come later. Au contraire, said Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, who made clear that Britain first must leave the union, then talk about terms of their future relationship.

So instead of London starting out with the contours of a deal that could preserve its access to the huge EU market, it must face months of detailed talks over what kind of rights EU citizens in the U.K. will have — and what rights Britons on the Continent will enjoy.

What’s more, Davis made clear that there’s little appetite in Britain — at least in the opening salvo of negotiations — for a so-called soft Brexit. Britain wants to leave the common market and abjure free movement of European citizens across borders, yet still enjoy privileged market access.

The arrangement most like that seems to be Canada’s, which does not honor free movement of European citizens nor pay money to Brussels, but which does now enjoy a free-trade agreement with the huge bloc. Ominously for Britain and its hopes for a speedy trade deal, that EU-Canada pact took eight years from start to finish.

Britain’s trying to play a weak hand in the talks. The general election earlier this month — called abruptly by Prime Minister Theresa May to bolster her majority and show a united Brexit face to Brussels — backfired spectacularly, and cost her Tories dearly. And most European political observers saw the first day as a capitulation.  

When asked whether agreeing to this schedule was a sign of the weakness of Britain’s negotiating position, Davis said: “It is not how it starts but how it ends.” Previously, Davis had vowed to make the scheduling issue the “row of the summer.”

From Brussels point of view, it’s very straightforward. “The United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union, it is not the other way around. The United Kingdom is going to leave the European Union, single market, and the customs union, not the other way around,” Barnier said.

It was not an unexpected stance, even though Europe’s heavyweights had hinted at a softer stance in recent weeks. Led by Germany, Brussels had insisted from the beginning that Britain’s decision last year to leave Europe clearly meant it was leaving Europe, with all the attendant privileges.

Photo credit: PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

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