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The reality gap between the self-referential debate among Britain’s politicians over the UK’s future relationship with the European Union and the position of the main continental leaders shows no sign of narrowing as the deadline for Theresa May to trigger Article 50 approaches.

To the extent that any overall British government stance can be discerned, it still appears to be to demand full access to the single market, notably for financial services and automobiles, while restricting immigration from Europe, rejecting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and giving Britain the freedom to pick and choose which EU legislation to retain. That sounds suspiciously like Boris Johnson’s doctrine on cake – “pro having it and pro eating it”.

Officials in the main EU capitals say they are dismayed that Britain still has no strategy for the exit negotiations due to start in March, and are irritated by the absence of specifics in May’s statements, and the lack of realism in ministers’ public comments.

Political events on the continent are not turning to British advantage. European leaders’ top priority is to resist the tide of Eurosceptical populism causing turbulence in many countries rather than to make Brexit soft or easy.

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, who wanted to dash to London if elected president next May and negotiate a new treaty to keep the UK tied to the EU, was knocked out in the first round of the centre-right primaries on Sunday.

True, Francois Fillon, the new conservative front-runner, has a Welsh wife, counts a former British ambassador, Sir Peter Westmacott, among his unofficial advisers, and takes a more Thatcherite line on economics and a more sovereignist approach to the EU than Socialist President Francois Hollande. Yet Fillon has called for a quickie divorce with the UK – “without aggressiveness but with no special favours either” – and is mainly focused on a more protectionist EU trade policy and a stronger euro zone.

Both he and Alain Juppé, the other contender in next Sunday’s centre-right run-off, say they want to renegotiate the Le Touquet agreement under which Britain’s Channel border is guarded in and by France rather than at the white cliffs of Dover.

In Germany, Angela Merkel confirmed on Sunday she will seek a fourth term. The chancellor has taken a consistently firm line on Brexit, declaring that the EU’s four freedoms are indivisible, and that Britain cannot enjoy the benefits of the single market if it does not allow freedom of movement for European citizens. Despite misleading reports to the contrary in pro-Brexit newspapers, she did not soften that position last week.

Her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, warned in an interview with the Financial Times last week that Britain faced continuing financial liabilities for the EU budget after Brexit and would still be bound by EU rules restricting state aid to industry, so questioning the government’s pledge to Nissan that led the Japanese car-maker to confirm a major investment in its UK plant in Sunderland.

Some of Britain’s other traditional friends in Europe, such as the Dutch, Danes and Swedes, are among the sharpest critics of the domestic British debate on future ties with the EU. Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem accused Johnson last week of misleading the public, charging that the foreign secretary was “saying things that are intellectually impossible, (and) politically unavailable. So I think he’s not offering the British people a fair view of what is available and what can be achieved in those negotiations.”

The reality is that Britain faces hard choices between controlling immigration and staying in the single market, accepting EU rules and their enforcement by EU institutions or incurring non-tariff barriers and tariffs in trade with the continent, and continuing to pay substantial sums into EU coffers or losing market access.

by Paul Taylor | 22.11.2016


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