THE European Union’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has pencilled in June 19 for the first day of talks with the UK about withdrawal from the EU.
The initial meeting between Barnier and the Brexit Secretary is likely to be held in the recently-opened Europa building, a £283 million transparent structure housing a large glass egg where key EU meeting rooms are accommodated. Its unworldly appearance has led to the building being nicknamed the Space Egg.
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The EU wants negotiations to be divided into four-week cycles, each focused on a key issue. Week one would involve political preparation, followed by a week where documents would be disclosed by both sides. The third week would see Barnier and the Brexit Secretary sitting down to talk, mainly in Brussels but also, potentially, in London. In the final week, Barnier would report on the results of the negotiations to the 27 member states and the European Parliament.
The EU’s negotiator wants to reach agreement on citizens’ rights, the UK’s divorce bill — which could amount to up to 100 billion euros — and on the Irish border in a first phase of talks he hopes will be concluded by the end of 2017.
But with hardline Brexiteers heaping pressure on Theresa May not to hand over any money for existing commitments made by the UK as a member, there is the possibility talks could collapse.
“The question of money, and how and when we agree it, is by far the biggest obstacle,” a UK government figure said this week. “At present, it is difficult to see a compromise that allows us to move the talks forward.”
The European Council, whose members comprise the 27 EU states, will decide by consensus on whether sufficient progress has been made for talks to progress, according to the Commission’s negotiating directives, to be signed off by EU ministers on Monday.
If it is deemed appropriate by the EU27 leaders, Barnier will spend from December 2017 to the Spring of 2018 negotiating the scope of a future trade deal with the UK.
He will also discuss the transitional arrangements necessary for the period between the UK leaving the single market and the customs union in March 2019, and any EU-UK trade deal being finalised and ratified some years ahead.
Barnier’s timetable allows for the approval of a withdrawal deal, including transitional arrangements, by EU institutions and member states.
Only two years of withdrawal negotiations are allowed under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. May notified the European Council of the UK’s decision to leave the EU on March 19 this year, nine months after last June’s referendum.
However, the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, fears Barnier’s timetable will be derailed.
David Davis, the current Brexit Secretary, hinted that the first round of talks could be stormy when interviewed on television last Sunday.
For him, the main point of difference remains the structure of the talks. The EU insists there must be agreement on three issues before negotiations can shift to trade: the amount the UK must pay into the EU budget; the status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and an agreement on the acquired rights of British and European expatriates.
But Davis says the Brexit bill and Irish border should be discussed in parallel with talks on a new trade agreement.