David Davis’s decision to describe a leaked EU paper suggesting Brussels could impose sanctions on Britain in a transition period as ‘discourteous’ had repercussions in Brussels today. In a solo press conference on Britain’s transition period, Michel Barnier cut a prickly figure as he warned that a transition period immediately after Brexit in 2019 is ‘not a given’.
Issuing Britain with a gentle ticking off, Barnier insisted that he was not being ‘vindictive’ as he raised concerns over May’s position. He said he has planned an update on the future relationship but this could not take place due to timetable constraints ‘on the UK side’. The EU’s chief negotiator did at least take the opportunity to outline the outstanding disagreements between the UK and EU over the terms of transition period. These included the UK’s refusal to guarantee permanent rights to EU nationals who come in this period and the right of the UK to object to new EU rules and laws. Making clear his impatience at the situation, Barnier said he was ‘surprised by these disagreements’. He issued a reminder to the UK government as it tries to thrash out a trade position that leaving the customs union meant border checks at the Irish border were ‘unavoidable’.
Of course, there is an element of bluster to Barnier’s comments. With the EU and British teams about to enter into a negotiation to hopefully finalise the terms of the transition, it’s natural that Barnier would be keen to talk the talk. But there is also another element at play here. This is the British government’s decision to pick fights on issues that it may well lose – as well as leading to eventual disappointment it sours the mood when there are bigger issues at stake.
The government is picking small battles on the terms on the transition when really Theresa May should be focussing on the bigger picture: the end state. There is a limited time until next month’s EU council meeting on the second stage of negotiations. Until then, the UK government ought to be taking every opportunity it can – and all the goodwill it can muster – to push for a deal with services and lobby the different EU leaders to their cause. The problem is that on this, the UK government still hasn’t worked out what it wants. As Barnier said today: ‘time is short – very short – and we haven’t a minute to lose if we want to succeed.’