After months of bravado, reality has started to bite
It was very easy for the government to put a positive spin on Brexit before the process actually started. But in the two days since Theresa May triggered Article 50, reality has begun to bite.
Two days in, one of the UK government’s key requests has already been rejected and its promise of a the ‘exact same benefits has been roundly rebuffed. What’s more, May herself has gotten off to a terrible start, offending EU leaders with her veiled security threats.
Let’s look a bit closer at each of these failures.
No free trade talks before departure deal
In her letter to Donald Tusk, Theresa May called for the EU ‘to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal’. In fact, she repeated that exact phrase four times.
But that had little impact on the European Council, which confirmed today that it would ‘proceed according to a phased approach giving priority to an orderly withdrawal.’
In other words, the initial concerns of the EU — citizens’ rights, outstanding British payments and the Irish border — will take priority over trade talks. Only when the council is satisfied with the progress made on those fronts will it proceed to discussing the future terms of the relationship.
In a press conference, Tusk put it even more bluntly.
“The United Kingdom is now on the other side of the negotiating table. Once, and only once we have achieved sufficient progress on the withdrawal, can we discuss the framework for our future relationship.”
This is an embarrassing slapdown, immediately putting the UK government on the back foot.
Exact same benefits? Not so much
On Wednesday, May — never passing up an opportunity to blandly state the obvious — acknowledged that the UK would have a ‘different relationship’ with Europe post-Brexit.
‘But’, she continued, ‘I think it can have the same benefits in terms of that free access to trade’.
This echoes Brexit secretary David Davis, who told the House of Commons in January that the government would aim for ‘a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have.’
Unfortunately, in the last two days alone the European Parliament, the European Council and the German foreign minister have reiterated that (in the Council’s words) ‘a non-member of the Union, that does not live up to the same obligations as a member, cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits as a member.’
So how exactly are the Tories planning to realise their commitment?
A blatant threat
While much of the prime minister’s rhetoric on Wednesday was uncommonly civil, one section of her letter inspired a icy response from the EU.
In her letter, May warned ‘in security terms a failure to reach agreement [within two years] would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.’
Senior figures in the European Parliament immediately hit back against the statement.
‘It would be outrageous to play with people’s lives in these negotiations,’ commented Gianni Pittella, head of the Socialist bloc.
“This has not been a good start by Theresa May. It feels like blackmail, but security is a good for all our citizens and not a bargaining chip. We still hope that Theresa May can get back on the right track … This was not a smart move.”
Earlier today, Tusk took a less overt but no less pointed approach, suggesting that he was willing to accept that there had simply been ‘a misunderstanding’.
‘I know Theresa well enough and I know her approach to this issue. This is why I rule out this kind of interpretation and speculation that security cooperation is used as bargaining chip. It must be a misunderstanding, our partners are wise and decent partners.”
Boris Johnson took the hint, tweeting within minutes of Tusk’s statement that ‘the UK’s commitment to the defence and security of Europe is unconditional.’
This series of rebuffs and climbdowns, within days of the triggering of Article 50, emphasises how thoroughly unprepared the goverment is for the challenge ahead.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.
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