U.K. Seeks More Brexit Negotiating Rounds

  • EU slammed Britain for lack of clarity as third round started
  • Hope fading that enough progress can be made by October summit

U.K. Asks EU for More Brexit Negotiating Sessions

The U.K. wants to squeeze in more hours of Brexit negotiation as an October deadline to secure a breakthrough with the European Union looks increasingly unattainable.

There are only two more rounds penciled in before an EU summit that will decide if talks can move to trade. But time is not on the side of Prime Minister Theresa May, and the position papers submitted over the summer to try and shift the discussion forward achieved the opposite.

Britain has asked for more negotiating sessions with its adversary with a view to picking up the pace, according to a person familiar with the talks who asked not to be named because the deliberations are private. The discussions are scheduled in week-long blocks, yet most of the 100-strong team of British officials didn’t arrive in Brussels until mid-morning on Tuesday with a concluding news conference slated for Thursday lunchtime.

On a trip to Japan, May stuck to her rhetoric that no deal is better than a bad deal, as she rejected the opposition Labour Party’s proposal at the weekend that the U.K. should remain in the single market and customs union for an extended transition period. May argues that Britain can’t stay in the single market once it’s left the bloc, and, she said Wednesday, “we are leaving the European Union.” She repeated her call that the focus of talks should be the future relationship.

But the EU wants first to settle the terms of the split and has signaled that it won’t move on to trade in October unless it’s satisfied with the outline terms of the divorce. The next opportunity to start trade talks would probably be a December gathering of leaders, leaving barely a year to hash out a new set of complex negotiations.

With or without an agreement, the U.K. is set to leave in March 2019 and the bloc won’t even consider transition arrangements until it’s satisfied the divorce settlement is on track. That means agreeing on a methodology for what the U.K. owes, guarantees for EU citizens living in the U.K. and how to police a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Out of Options

“The leeway the U.K. government has is very limited,” said Florian Otto, head of Europe research at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “It isn’t really an option to let the timeline slip because you have a lot of companies waiting to act on contingency plans if they have to, and the timing that keeps being mentioned is the end of the year -- so not making it into stage two in the autumn is probably a thing that is to be avoided at all costs.”

EU leaders know they have the upper hand, which probably explains the blunt language deployed by their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. On Tuesday, the focus was on the divorce bill, one of the thorniest issues, with the U.K. still refusing to say how it thinks the settlement should be calculated.

“I’ve read all the position papers produced by Her Majesty’s government and none of them is satisfactory,” Juncker said at a conference in Brussels.

Next Steps

The U.K. has published 11 documents outlining its positions in areas from data protection to nuclear safety and customs arrangements -- and there are more to come. The hope was that they would persuade the EU that talks about the future relationship should be brought forward, making the case that issues like the Irish border are intertwined with trade.

“We believe we are in a good position and we would like to move on to discuss our future relationship,” May’s spokeswoman Alison Donnelly told reporters in London on Tuesday. “There are lots of issues we believe you can’t separate between withdrawal and future relationship.”

Britain’s call for more time to negotiate is an admission that talks aren’t moving as quickly as hoped. It could even get a positive reception from the EU side. Barnier said on Monday that he was “ready to intensify negotiations over the coming weeks in order to advance.”

For now, U.K. negotiators spent much of Tuesday trying to pick apart the EU’s legal analysis of Britain’s financial obligations, a topic that is deeply unpopular with the electorate back home. They believe they can reduce the U.K.’s bill by showing that some commitments may not be binding under EU law.

A Guardian/ICM opinion poll published on Tuesday indicated that more than 70 percent of British voters would find paying a bill of 30 billion pounds ($39 billion) or more unacceptable.

— With assistance by Svenja O'Donnell

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.