So ill prepared does the UK appear to be in the current round of Brexit negotiations, particularly in the all important area of trade, that a feeling is now emerging in Brussels that the government is simply “playing for time” while, to use an English expression, it quietly “lines up its ducks” in the background, writes Gary Cartwright.
British diplomats and their negotiating teams have for a very long time been known for their habit of feigning disinterest and confusion until the critical moment, at which point everything comes into very sharp focus. By doggedly insisting on prioritising the terms of the so-called divorce bill, the EU negotiating team have the the most important battle field entirely to the British.
One UK senior official is reported as saying “This idea that we’ve been sitting on our hands for the last year is just bollocks. We have been working extremely hard. What you will start to see over the next couple of months is the government setting out in public what has been happening in private.”
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat expressed the same scepticism last week: “People who say the Brits don’t know what they are doing are wrong,” he told Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, “I have lived in Britain, I know the British mentality. A non-prepared British government official simply doesn’t exist.”
Former French MEP Jean-Paul Gauzès, who negotiated frequently with British counterparts as a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, said: “The Brits are pragmatic and very concrete,” adding: “The Brits never ask for clarity because the more ambiguous it is, the better it is.”
The focus - some may say “obsession” - with the divorce bill also reveals two significant weaknesses on the EU side.
Firstly, Brussels desperately needs this money. The union, with its bloated and self-serving institutions, lives hand to mouth. There are no cash reserves. Even the pensions of retired staff are paid from member states contributions. If the contributions stop - and the UK has always been a major net contributor - then the wheels will fall off very quickly.
Secondly, this focus keeps attention away from the fact that on the most important issues the other 27 member states are largely divided. The need for other people’s money is the only thing that truly unites them, and so when attention falls on the myriad of other issues, the UK will then be strongly positioned to exploit the fractures.
This process may already be under way, using major economic actors within Europe who are fearful of losing their UK markets, and the governments of countries that have never been happy with the asymmetrical relationships that the EU has forced upon them. It is very telling that within days of last year’s referendum result the first telephone calls came from the heads of the Commonwealth countries. Ask the farmers of Australia and New Zealand what they think about the EU.
Towards the end of August the UK is expected to set out its position on a number of topics. Will the EU be ready for the real negotiations to commence, or will they stubbornly cling to the hope of a big payoff?
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