Theresa May brought a “new dynamic” to the Brexit negotiations, according to Michel Barnier, with her conciliatory speech in Florence. The Prime Minister tried to make the most of this “ new spirit” at this week’s Council summit, but did not get much from her European counterparts. They have agreed to start talking about a trade deal among themselves, with Britain only joining this dialogue from December if it makes enough progress on the opening matters of “BBC” (borders, bills and citizens, as the Danish PM put it).
Money remains a sensitive issue, with Emmanuel Macron declaring that both sides were “ far from where we should be” and accusing Britain of not making a “substantial financial effort”. Mrs May refused to deny reports that she had doubled her opening offer of €20 billion, and did not rule out paying as much as three times that. Monsieur Macron can be placated, but I point out online that the Prime Minister still has to square the final bill with Eurosceptics in her cabinet and party.
The challenge Mrs May faces in selling a Brexit deal at home seems to have elicited sympathy from other European leaders. Angela Merkel thought there was “ zero indication” that a deal could not be done, and conceded that “both sides need to move” in order to break the deadlock. Their decision to begin thinking about trade without Britain may seem like a diplomatic cold shoulder, but Donald Tusk indicated that they would “take account” of any suggestions Britain makes about the issue. It is a sign that trade is slowly coming onto the agenda, even if both sides can’t talk directly to each other about it yet.
Brexiteers will be increasingly frustrated by the EU making them wait for trade talks, but they cannot be surprised by how fastidiously Brussels is sticking to its schedule. Open Europe’s Henry Newman was told by a major EU foreign minister that both sides “were like a couple who had only been out on four or five dates” but were not ready to take it to the next level. The courtship will keep going, although the European Commission recently refused to tell our Brussels correspondent if any of the negotiators had fallen in love. If they keep it up, they may finally get what they want this Christmas.
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