Theresa May’s Florence speech last week certainly prompted a warming of words from Brussels – but so far it has triggered little action. At today’s press conference between Michel Barnier and David Davis to mark the completion of the fourth round of Brexit talks, the EU’s chief negotiator said not enough progress had been made to move to talking about a UK/EU trade deal in the next round of talks:
‘I think it’s positive that Theresa May’s speech made it possible to unblock the situation, to some extent, and give a new dynamic to the situation. But we are far from being at a stage – it will take weeks, or maybe even months – where we will be able to say “Yes, okay, there has been sufficient progress on the principles of this orderly withdrawal.”‘
While this is not the news the UK government would have liked to hear, it’s not unexpected. Few thought they would get to talking trade by next month – and there is expectation in Whitehall that trade talks might not even begin until the new year. What Theresa May can take heart from is the positive tone to the most recent round. Both sides appear to be working constructively – and Barnier suggested progress had been made on all three key issues – the rights of EU nationals, the Irish border and the Brexit bill.
The issue for the government is how many ‘months’ Barnier means when he says the UK is far off from having made ‘sufficient progress’. The UK government hope the concessions May has made – on things like the Brexit bill – will hurry things along at a more rapid speed. However, the EU have no need to speed things up and are aware that delays only serve to strengthen their position and rattle the UK government, which is looking to reassure business figures. If the talks are delayed much further than the new year, May will need to revisit her old assertion that no deal is better than a bad deal.