Well, I’ll be blowed. It’s been a long time since I was optimistic about the Brexit talks, but this morning in Brussels, like a Chilean miner brought to the surface after being trapped below ground for 55 days, Theresa May was all smiles and looking forward to a bright new day.
In a comment I gave yesterday to City A.M. about prospects for this week’s EU summit, I said everything hinged on two things if the next round of talks was ever to get underway: the attitude of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron and Mrs May’s ability to “shine” when addressing her fellow leaders.
Merkel and Macron did their bit, even walking, nodding and smiling, with their soon-to-be ex-partner along the full length of the Brussels equivalent of the red carpet. And, fair play to them, this was a sorely needed act of symbolism. For her part, the PM was positive and gutsy. Though she began the proceedings in the shadows on Thursday morning, by the time she took to the podium to announce her version of events, she looked – dare I say it? – both optimistic and confident.
So, Round 5-and-a-half (or whatever it is) to the UK.
But now for the nitty-gritty. What did the Prime Minister say to the 27, and to Merkel and Macron in particular, that allowed them to support the idea of talks about talks – “scoping,” as it is known – on the issue of future trade relations?
Mrs May was deliberately cagey on this. She revealed nothing beyond the fact that she would live up to the assurance she had given in her Florence speech that Britain would not default on its obligations and would pay whatever was due to the EU budget up to 2020. She added, in response to a journalist’s question, there might be certain longer-term add-ons, for example in the areas of policing, security and scientific research. But she did not so much as hint at the “many millions” of additional payments that the EU expects to be made if the talks are to move on to trade.
My guess is that the rumours were right and she did give private assurances on the divorce bill. She probably intimated that if it could be shown, following a reasonable audit, that the UK should pay not £20bn, but more like £40bn spread over five years, say, she would accept it as the price of a settlement more important than anything Britain has agreed since 1945. The hammer could come down and the auction would be over.
No-dealers in the Tory Party will undoubtedly go bananas at the prospect of any such doubling of our alimony bill. Some of them might actually explode with rage. But the rest of the country, Nigel Farage excepted, will surely heave a sigh of relief and look forward to a constructive next phase.
Having said all that, it was noticeable that in her speech and when answering questions, Mrs May made no reference to the fact that the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, had just tweeted, “Brexit conclusions adopted. Leaders green-light internal EU27 preparations for 2nd phase”. Maybe she hadn’t seen the tweet, but she would certainly have been apprised of the green light. So what weight should we attach to the “preparations”? To me, it sounds like a compromise. Actual trade talks are not going to open straightaway. But, behind the scenes, work will accelerate in Brussels aimed at getting them underway in time for the pantomime season, which starts in the run-up to Christmas. It won’t be easy. Progress will still be required on citizens rights, the Irish border and, of course, the divorce. But at least everyone now appears to be more or less on the same page.
On the specifics, the Prime Minister and Brussels have finally got a handle on citizens rights. It looks as if that hurdle will be overcome with only a minimum of delay. The Irish question, on the other hand, still looks iffy. It is all very well for both sides to reiterate the need for there to be no physical border between North and South post-Brexit. It is fine and dandy to say that nothing must be allowed to jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement. But how is border scrutiny going to work out in practise? Nobody seems to know. And if the technical questions continue to go unresolved, the entire Brexit settlement could yet unravel.
As for the divorce bill, it’s only money. As the Government constantly reminded us during the referendum, Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world, and while it will hurt to sign the cheque, the investment will pay dividends. The Government, with parliamentary approval, should just do it. If they don’t, we’re back to Square One, and Square One, right next door to No Deal, is a scary place.
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The 27, as we have seen, are about to get ready for trade talks. So must the British. Time for Liam Fox to shine, not just David Davis. Given that the Government has rejected remaining in the Single Market, the best option still open is the Canadian model, with knobs on. Unrestricted access to the EU market is unachievable without membership of the Single Market. Two-way access, however, with a minimum level of tariffs for both goods and services, is on the table. If the UK can use the Canada deal as a template, with additional safeguards for the City of London, Brexit could be done and dusted even before the two-year transition period that everyone now accepts is inevitable expires in 2021.
As a Remainer, I continue to weep for my generation. We should never have left the EU. We should have stayed in and fought for much-needed reforms. But I live in the real world, with all its imperfections, so now, as a Remourner, I am looking to the Tories and Labour to come together and make the bloody thing work.
It is time for the critics, including Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, to shut up. We’re bored listening to them. Yes, the European Court of Justice will continue to poke its nose into British law and administration for a little longer, and, yes, the divorce settlement will cost more than most of us have in our savings. But whoever said divorce was easy? Let’s get it done. To paraphrase Billy Crystal as Harry when proposing marriage to Sally after their long and difficult estrangement, when you realise that you want to spend the rest of your life doing something differently, you want the rest of your life to begin as soon as possible.