Every negotiation involves choreography. But when the dancers don’t know the steps in advance, things can go very wrong. Then the blame must be shared. It takes two to mess up a tango.
The UK and EU are not so much stumbling over each other in the Brexit talks as fidgeting on opposite sides of the floor. There is an impasse, according to Michel Barnier, who negotiates on behalf of the European commission with a mandate set by the 27 European heads of government. They will meet this week for a summit, where it will formally be declared that insufficient progress has been made to allow Brexit talks to proceed from the terms of divorce to the question of a future trading partnership.
That is a failure, but not an irreversible one. October was the deadline for phase one, and it has slipped past. The Tories deserve the lion’s share of blame for being unable to express a consistent account of what they want from Brexit. A clearer sense of destination would have allowed a more precise discussion of the kind of concessions involved. Incoherence has been exacerbated by a pointless argument about the “no deal” scenario. Theresa May does not want to indulge that idea, but nor will she rule it out. Philip Hammond does not want to set aside money to pay for a disorderly rupture (yet). Hardline backbenchers think that makes the chancellor of the exchequer a Brussels lackey, practically a traitor.
That routine is absurd. There is no such thing as “no deal”. To function as a state beyond Brexit day, the UK will need some mechanism for cooperation with its neighbours, even if just to facilitate continental air travel. So “no deal” simply means a last-minute patchwork of desperate ad hoc mini-deals – the worst possible arrangement on a spectrum of dismal options. That would be bad for the EU, but worse for Britain, an imbalance that is plainly understood in the negotiating chamber but too often ignored in Westminster.
The problem on the Brussels side is institutional inflexibility. The sequencing of talks and the mechanics of the relationship between Mr Barnier and the EU27 leave no capacity to be agile. Mrs May had hoped that her speech in Florence last month, containing a theoretical concession on money owed, and describing the outline of transitional arrangements, would unlock the next stage. But the financial pledge was too vague for the Europeans. Of course it was. The UK will not say what it will pay if there is no clarity about what it is buying – what combination of old commitments and future perks – and it cannot be sure of that without discussions about final status.
There is a route out of this deadlock. The EU27 will agree to set up a parallel discussion over the shape of transition and trade, described in European circles as a “scoping” exercise. This could give Mrs May a tangible sense of progress, as long as both sides agree to frame it in those terms. The prime minister needs to save face with her domestic audience, otherwise the pressure to detonate the whole process will build further. In exchange for that bridge to phase two, Mrs May will have to go further on the money side. That means shifting towards the commission position in a complex debate over what the UK actually agreed to as an EU member – a concept that lumps together specifically allocated budget funds and less well-defined policy commitments.
That will not be politically comfortable, which is why the EU27 should play their part in a choreography of bilateral concession. It is not, after all, in their interests to see the talks break down. The limitations of the UK’s negotiating hand necessarily gives an advantage to Brussels, but Mrs May’s weak position in her party does not. It makes the whole process brittle and volatile. The biggest hazard is that hardliners in the cabinet conspire to depict the EU’s movement on scoping as a non-concession and a humiliation of the prime minister. That would cut off her avenue to dignified retreat on finance. There are Tories who are more interested in burning bridges than building them.
There are technical remedies for the current impasse – symmetrical compromises on scheduling and money. It is well within the capacity of European leaders, including Mrs May, to choreograph the steps. The problem is a Tory faction that is spoiling to break up the dance altogether.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010