Brexit Divisions Are Making Talks ‘Difficult’ for EuropeBy and
Irish premier says Brexit supporters can’t agree what it means
Says EU ready to be ‘flexible’ to resolve Irish border issue
European Union leaders and officials are finding Theresa May’s government a difficult negotiating partner, as splits inside the U.K. make it hard to know what they want.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, Finnish State Secretary Samuli Virtanen and French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire all expressed frustration Tuesday at the splits within May’s cabinet, which saw her set out a position on Brexit in a speech in Florence last month only for Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to set out a different one. Ministers are also divided on whether to walk away from the talks if they don’t like the deal on offer.
“It is quite a difficult negotiation when people who want to leave the European Union in Britain don’t really seem to agree among themselves what that actually means,” Varadkar said in an interview with the BBC’s “Spotlight” program.
EU officials have maintained their united stance ahead of a key summit of leaders in Brussels this week. Instead of Britain playing off different European countries against each other, the EU is holding its line with London when it comes to enforcing the terms of the divorce, while British ministers disagree on their negotiating stance.
“That’s one of the things that makes the negotiation process a bit difficult, because at the moment the EU 27 is more unanimous than the U.K. 1, so that’s one of the main problems here,” Virtanen told reporters on his way to a meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg. “When you read the British press about the situation in Westminster, it’s sometimes very difficult to understand what Britain really wants from these negotiations.”
Le Maire said that in the U.K., “they have to accept that they need to make a decision.”
May is hoping EU leaders will give ground in the summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, allowing talks to move on from the separation issues to a new trade agreement and transition phase. She spoke to Varadkar by phone on Monday, and the pair discussed “the importance of maintaining constructive progress in the negotiations,” her office said.
May will share her reflections about the current state of the Brexit talks with other leaders who will be gathering for dinner in Brussels on Thursday evening.
An EU official said member states are increasingly dismayed by the incompetence of the British politicians leading their country’s talks. These countries doubt whether May and her cabinet will be able to carry through negotiations with a successful outcome, even though the bloc wants a deal and is prepared to help the British, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive.
Varadkar is particularly concerned to ensure a satisfactory resolution of the Irish border question, a key complication in Brexit talks. Both sides want to avoid a hard boundary between the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which will leave as part of the U.K., but there are risks to security and customs enforcement from an open EU land border.
His government is considering pushing for guarantees that no border will be reimposed on the island of Ireland as the price for allowing Brexit talks to move ahead, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Irish authorities are keen to use their leverage in the first part of the negotiations to extract maximum concessions on the border, according to the people, who asked not to be named because the deliberations are ongoing. That could mean turning U.K. and EU aspirations to avoid a hard border into a concrete commitment, the people said.
“Whereas a hard line may be taken in negotiations with Britain and with London, there is a real willingness across Europe to be flexible and creative when it comes to Northern Ireland,” Varadkar told the BBC.
Meanwhile, the EU is aiming to complete its internal preparations for talks on the future trade deal with the U.K. by the end of the year, in a move that could keep alive May’s hopes of breaking the deadlock. The Council of the EU, which represents member states, will open discussions with the European Commission as soon as this month on the key points of the plan, according to two officials familiar with the matter.
May’s team believes the risks of a breakdown in talks will dramatically increase if the EU is unable to give a clear signal this week that the negotiations will move on from the divorce bill to future trade terms by the end of the year.
The EU says negotiations have not yet made “sufficient progress” on separation issues -- the future of the Irish border, the rights of EU citizens living in the U.K. and Britain’s financial settlement -- for trade talks to begin.
May’s team believes she has already moved as far as she can toward giving the EU what it wants. They believe she took a political risk in offering to pay into the EU budget and meet wider financial obligations and now needs the bloc to make a big gesture on trade talks in return.
“We are reaching the limits of what we can achieve without consideration of the future relationship,” Brexit Secretary David Davis told lawmakers in London on Tuesday. “We are ready to move these negotiations on.”
— With assistance by Peter Levring, and Nikos Chrysoloras