The gulf between Britain and Brussels over Brexit was brought into sharp relief this morning, as both sides laid out their positions in firm language at separate press conferences.
In London, David Davis fired back at recent leaks and talk of a huge "Brexit bill" – insisting Britain won't be a "supplicant" in the upcoming Brexit negotiations.
In Brussels, his opposite number Michel Barnier was equally firm: The European Union isn't trying to punish Britain for leaving, but those who think exiting will be smooth are kidding themselves.
“Some have created the illusion that Brexit will have no material impact on our lives, or that negotiations can be concluded quickly and painlessly,” Barnier said at a press conference. “This is not the case.”
“You have to learn to put one foot in front of the other,” the EU's chief negotiator added, in a reference to prime minister Theresa May's fondness for hill walking, a passion they share, “because sometimes you are on a steep and rocky path.”
Both sides reiterated their early positions on matters such as Britain’s financial liabilities and the structure of the talks. With the formal discussions still weeks away, it's clear that the gulf between the British government’s ambitions and those of the remaining 27 EU member states is vast.
It's also clear that the talks will be long, complicated, and contentious.
“We are in the pre-negotiating phase of what will be a very complex and very tough two-year negotiation,” Davis told reporters at a Conservative election campaign event in Westminster. “There will be tough times in this exercise, where we come under pressure. This is one of those times.”
Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, appearing alongside Davis, said both sides were “manoeuvring for advantage”.
Their comments came hours after front-page reports in two leading British newspapers appeared to suggest Theresa May’s government is entering the talks on the back foot.
The Financial Times reported that the divorce settlement could amount to as much as €100 billion, to cover future budget commitments and other liabilities – higher than figures that had previously been circulated.
The so-called “divorce bill” is one of the main stumbling blocks to a quick settlement. As Brussels sees it, Britain made financial commitments before voters decided to leave and they must be fulfilled.
Officials want to resolve this and other historical obligations before talking about the EU’s future relationship with the UK. But in the UK, the extent of the liability is disputed – with some Eurosceptics urging May to simply walk away without paying anything.
Another report, on the front page of The Times, claimed May wouldn’t be able to negotiate Brexit with other heads of state, as she has said on the campaign trail. According to the newspaper, Europe is insisting that negotiations will be handled solely by Barnier, acting on behalf of the 27, with Davis on the other side.
Those reports came days after damaging leaks suggested that a private dinner between May and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, at Downing Street last week ended with both sides alarmingly far from agreement on how to proceed.
Juncker was said to have accused May of living in a “parallel reality” and left the meeting “10 times more sceptical” about Britain’s demands than when he went in.
Taken together, at face value, the reports seem to indicate that the UK may have misread its chances of getting a favourable deal from the EU.
However, in London on Wednesday, Davis and Hammond pointed out that the talks are still in an early stage, and that these could just be negotiating tactics.
Both ministers said they “didn’t recognise” the €100 billion figure cited in the FT. “I genuinely don’t recognise it,” Hammond told reporters. “And look, it’s moved by 60% in the span of a few days. It is just a negotiating position.”
He added: “What we do know is that we are on the brink of a very tough, complex, lengthy negotiation and I’m not remotely surprised that people are manoeuvring for opening advantage.”
Davis rejected the report that May will be excluded from the talks. “We’re not entering this negotiation as a supplicant. It’s not for the other side to lay down every single rule… We decide the structure of our negotiating team, not the European Union.”
Asked about the dinner with Juncker, at which he was present, Davis said: “Let me first say about the dinner, we don’t comment on private meetings, we never have, never will, and there’ll be many more private meetings between now and the end of two years.
“What I will say to you is, the morning after, both the Commission and Downing Street said it had been a constructive meeting. Of course there’ll be differences of view. There’ll be many more of those over the coming couple of years.”
In Brussels, Barnier presented the European Commission’s recommendations for negotiating directives (a document that translates the EU27 guidelines into a technical and legal mandate). He had three core messages.
First, there is no “Brexit bill”.
“Our goal is clear: The UK needs to honour all the financial relations between UK and EU, all commitments taken as a member… there is no punishment. There is no Brexit bill. The financial settlement is only about settling the accounts – nothing more,” the EU’s chief negotiator said.
Barnier didn’t provide a ballpark figure, and reaffirmed the EU’s intention to focus on negotiating a methodology to calculate the amount due. Barnier also said Britain’s financial obligations would extend beyond 2019, for example because of funding for activities in Turkey and Ukraine. “Responsibilities must be honoured,” Barnier added.
Second, on guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights, another of the priorities set out by the 27 for the first phase of negotiations, Barnier stressed the issue was complicated and could not be solved with a handshake.
The EU’s chief negotiator returned to the topic of the complexity and difficulties involved in Brexit and the negotiations a number of times during his intervention, saying there was no way they could be concluded quickly and painlessly: "We need sound solutions, we need legal precision, and this will take time.”
Barnier confirmed that the EU will be mandated to safeguard the status and entire body of rights of EU and UK citizens, and their families, affected by Brexit. He also said that citizens' rights covers people who arrive in Britain "until the day of Brexit" (29 March 2019), and that he believed the oversight of the European Court of Justice would be needed to enforce any arrangement.
Finally, Barnier said that although the EU was prepared for all options, his goal was to reach a deal on withdrawal, transition, and the future relationship with the UK, including a free and fair trade deal.
Commenting on the controversies over last week’s dinner with May, Barnier described the meeting as “very cordial” and said he hoped to build an entente cordiale.
He also revealed that he shares a passion for “rambling and hiking in the mountains” with the prime minister.
The mandate only covers the first phase of negotiations: agreement on the rights of EU and UK nationals, sorting out the UK’s financial commitments to the EU, and finding a solution to the Northern Ireland border question.
The EU also wants to provide as much clarity and legal certainty as possible to citizens, businesses, stakeholders, and international partners on the immediate effects of the UK's withdrawal from the EU. This includes clarifying “the situation of goods placed on the market before the withdrawal date as well as the status of ongoing procedures”.
In effect, by mandating a phased approach to the talks, the EU is ruling out any early negotiations about transitional arrangements or trade deals until these initial issues have been settled.
“The UK must put a great deal of energy and effort into these three issues [EU citizens’ rights, settling financial commitments, and the Northern Ireland border question] over the next weeks and months, and that will increase the chances of reaching a deal,” Barnier said.
On Saturday, the EU’s 27 leaders agreed that the second phase of talks can only begin once they determine that “sufficient progress” has been made on these issues. Barnier said he hoped the talks could reach such a place in October or November, but warned that “sufficient progress” would not amount to window dressing.
Hinting at some of the required conditions, Barnier said that on citizens' rights, an agreement on the cut-off date, on the duration of the guarantees, and on an enforcement mechanism would be needed. On the budget, he said there would need to be agreement on the methodology.
The 27 will meet again on 22 May to finalise the negotiating mandate, and to formally authorise negotiations and nominate the Commission as their negotiator.
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at Alberto.Nardelli@buzzfeed.com.
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