With just weeks to go before the notification to trigger Article 50 is expected, the official line from the EU institutions is that plans and staff are in place and Brussels and the EU27 are prepared. The EU Commission has a set of negotiation scenarios primed and believes that the EU will enjoy a home-field advantage as talks commence in Brussels. Publicly, all three institutions, the Commission, Council and Parliament, as well as the 27 other member states are firm that they have a joint position on how Brexit should unfold and what could be offered to the UK.
Yet, how long this line will hold remains to be seen. The novelty and multitude of actors on the EU side leaves much uncertainty remaining about how exactly the Article 50 process will unfold, and national political leaders at times, perhaps understandably considering major forthcoming elections in the Netherlands, France Germany, appear more focused on pleasing domestic audiences than reaching a European agreement.
Michel Barnier, heading up the technical negotiations from the Commission, will face additional hurdles as he tries to lead the EU in the divorce proceedings compared with his opposite number, the Brexit Secretary David Davis. Mr Barnier’s mandate from the EU Heads of States, to be received during a special summit in April 2017, won’t prevent him having to regularly report back to ministers and political leaders for guidance and coordination whilst navigating the mine-field of 27 national interests.
From informal meetings and sources, we know that much of Mr Barnier’s initial focus will rest on agreeing the UK’s financial commitments and securing citizens’ rights. On the former, Mrs May’s spokesperson has confirmed that the final number will be up for discussion in formal talks, whilst on the latter issue, the British have similarly made clear their desire to secure reciprocal status. Failure to date on this front could hint at differences already beginning to show, not between Britain and the EU Commission, but among the Commission and some Member States.
What also appears clear from statements made already is that the priority in Brussels after the notification of Article 50 will be on securing key terms of the divorce before any talks on a future trade deal take place. Here, though, London’s approach to date seems to be to ignore this. Similarly, on timeframes, Mr Barnier perceives Mrs May’s 2 year deadline to be unrealistic, whilst Jean-Claude Juncker has said: “I do not think…we will succeed within 24 months to clear up the arrangements for Britain’s exit from the EU and to (forge) the whole relationship between Britain and the European continent”. Both the UK government and UK companies might do well to prepare for the talks to take longer before any future trade relationships are agreed.
The difficult relation
And then there is also the EU Parliament, which while nominally only having a final yes-or-no vote on the deal, will be closely involved in the process to ensure that a final agreement is passed with MEPs. The Parliament has designated the extreme pro-Europe, Belgium Liberal Guy Verhofstadt as its lead negotiator. He will be supported by a group of experienced MEPs to provide the views of their respective political groups, and political group chairs and Committees will have input to ensure that the Parliament’s view is reflected in the EU Commission’s negotiation approach. This leaves plenty of room for misunderstandings, political maneuvering and general dissent within the EU, and one does not have to look far to find it. Perhaps the words of the influential German MEP Manfred Weber most clearly demonstrate that the EU’s biggest challenge in this divorce may just come from within:
“Frankly speaking there is a mandate from the European Commission for Michel Barnier, but not a mandate from the European Parliament … When I have a look on the content and at the topics on the table, for me it is still a mission impossible ahead of us that we can manage this. This will create a lot of damage, especially for the Brits for sure”.