Brussels: Theresa May and her EU counterparts are conducting their bilateral diplomacy with the courtesy of 18th century monarchs, while planning for a battle that could wreak heavy losses on both sides.

Nobody wants a bitter negotiating struggle that may end without an agreement when Article 50 expires. But the issues to be tackled are exceedingly complex and the politics dangerous and challenging for both sides. 

David Davis, the UK Brexit secretary, told the cabinet on Tuesday to work on contingency plans in case there is no deal. Britain’s EU partners are also preparing for such a breakdown in relations, according to Politico

The challenge for the EU negotiators is to strike a deal with the British that truly does work for both sides. Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister, warned recently against risking indefinite poisoning of EU-UK relations. Common interests will remain and “life goes on, even after a divorce”. But nothing must be done to endanger the present EU of 27 states, he added. 

To senior officials in Brussels this means defending the Union’s core principles and institutions (above all free movement), keeping the 27 in tight formation and discouraging any other member state from heading for the exit. This does not promise much in the way of flexibility.

Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Juncker said a couple of weeks ago that his mood is not hostile. “I do not think we will get anywhere by clobbering the British, insulting them and driving too hard a bargain.” Nonetheless, the European Commission president abruptly shot down the British notion that the two sides can launch and complete free trade talks in parallel with Article 50 issues.

An especially knotty problem will be resolving the UK’s exit bill. The Commission wants the UK to shell out up to €60bn to cover its present and future obligations to the EU. It will be extremely hard for May to sign over anything like that amount of money. On the other hand, any reduction in the payment would add to the budget contributions other member states have to make.

The UK may try to offer new commitments to Europe’s security as a way of avoiding an eye-watering bill. But any crude attempt to trade defence for money is likely to backfire. Fischer, for one, doesn’t think this will be much of a card because the UK’s geopolitical and security interests will still be the same after Brexit. It wouldn’t make sense for the UK to cold shoulder cooperation on mutual defence, the fight against terrorism and border protection. 

The former German foreign minister wants “calmness and rationality” to be the hallmarks of the negotiations and an outcome which at the very least will not leave the EU and the UK even more at the mercy of worsening geopolitical weather. 

Amen to that. But, as we have seen so often in the past year, rationality doesn’t always triumph when passions are roused.

by John Wyles | 02.03.2017

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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