Splits were emerging among the 27 EU member states over Brexit negotiating tactics last night, as several smaller member states indicated they wanted the European Commission to begin early trade talks with Britain.
The European Commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, has been adamant that Britain must finalise a ‘divorce deal’ costing up to 60 billion euros before they will begin talks over the future EU-UK trade relationship.
Laying down the ground-rules last week, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said that Europe would take everything step by step, in the right order and that it was legally impossible to do the two deals together.
However, senior EU diplomats from some states were last night expressing reservations about the Commission’s hardline approach ahead of today’s European Council summit at which the EU 27 will discuss how to handle the Brexit talks.
The more we dig in [to the detail] the more terrifying it looks, said an eastern EU diplomat We have to avoid unpleasant surprises at the end. We need a transitional deal and we are ready to do parallel negotiations.
A second EU diplomat, briefing ahead of the talks on condition of anonymity, said that Mr Barnier – a former French foreign minister who is remembered for driving hard bargains with Britain during his time as the EU commissioner for markets and services in 2010-2014 – did not speak with authority.
Barnier doesn’t have a mandate, so politely speaking no-one should pay too much attention to what Barnier is saying, the source said. His game is to jockey for position and claim territory for the Commission, but he has no mandate until the member states give him one.
He will be kept on a very tight leash by the Council. Convincing the European side to discuss trade arrangements while simultaneously finalising the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU will be crucial to getting a smooth transition, according to British negotiators.
Both Philip Hammond, the Chancellor and David Davis, the Brexit secretary, have spoken in recent days about the need to have a mutually agreed transition period to bridge the gap between the UK leaving in March 2019 and the start of new trade arrangements, most likely a Canada-style free trade deal.
Mr Barnier acknowledged the potential need for a limited transition an admission that experts said pointed out the illogicality of the Commission’s position ruling out parallel trade talks.
What Barnier says is not consistent, said Vincenzo Scarpetta, of the Open Europe think-tank, citing meetings with Italian government officials who had also accepted the reality that some trade talks will need to be done in parallel with the divorce arrangements.
They were not particularly keen on negotiating in parallel, but they did admit it was pretty much impossible to keep the two agreements separate, because you need to discuss some bridging measures, he said.
Mr Scarpetta added that under WTO rules any transitional period would need to come with a clear timeline and agreed end-destination in order to be legally compliant.
They will need to lay out the broad thrust of this final destination, which essentially means keeping the two agreements separate is not possible, he added.
The European Council has said it will not finalise Mr Barnier’s negotiating mandate until after Britain triggers Article 50 setting out its own vision of a post-EU relationship.
The final deal with the UK will have to be ratified by the European Parliament, but yesterday long-simmering internal tensions between the Parliament and the Commission and Council – which represents the 27 EU member states – erupted into the open.
Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgium prime minister and chief negotiator for the European Parliament, vented his fury at attempts by the Commission and Council to exclude him from preparatory negotiations .
According to a leaked draft of conclusions from tonight’s EU 27 dinner in Brussels obtained by The Telegraph, the Commission and Council have promised only that Mr Verhofstadt would be kept regularly informed of the progress of talks.
It’s time that you also involve the Parliament from day one, he said in an angry intervention in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, threatening to open his own parallel negotiation with the British if he was kept outside the door.
Theresa May will meet with Mr Verhofstadt on the sidelines of the European Council this morning, where he is expected to push Mrs May to warn the Commission not to exclude the Parliament or risk derailing a future deal.
After meetings with the Latvian and Lithuanian leaders, Mrs May will use a working lunch to warn EU leaders that they risk losing public confidence if they allow hundreds of thousands of economic migrants into Europe.
A Downing Street source: Of course we want to be able to respond to humanitarian need, but also to be aware of the way some of our communities are experiencing the pressure of migration.