Brussels — EU officials hope the British government will show more urgency about a Brexit deal when its negotiators come to Brussels on Monday for a first full round of talks aimed at smoothing Britain’s departure.
"The hard work starts now," EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said last week, again sounding a note of alarm that London has yet to provide detailed proposals on a range of key issues, with barely a year left for bargaining.
A year after the referendum vote to leave, Prime Minister Theresa May still faces a complex task in finding consensus at home on what kind of Brexit Britain wants. That job was made all the harder by her losing her parliamentary majority in June’s elections.
Her Brexit minister, veteran anti-EU campaigner David Davis, will meet Barnier, a French former cabinet minister, at the European Commission’s headquarters on Monday morning for a brief public handshake before formal business begins.
Their teams will spend most of the next four days in smaller working groups, trying to identify areas of accord and discord on a set of issues agreed on during an initial day of talks on June 19. On Thursday afternoon, Davis and Barnier should hold a news conference to fix publicly what has been agreed so far.
The priorities, notably rights for expatriate citizens, how much Britain may owe to the EU budget and how to manage the new EU-UK border, especially with Ireland, are ones both sides want to settle in a withdrawal treaty. Barnier says this must be ready by about October 2018 if it is to be ratified on both sides of the Channel before Britain leaves in March 2019.
"The clock is ticking," he said on Wednesday, displaying a degree of impatience with British ministers who continue to dismiss EU demands that they must first agree in principle that London will owe the EU a hefty amount — probably in the tens of billions of euros — to cover its existing commitments. "The first serious test of the negotiations will be them agreeing to pay the bill," a senior EU official said.
The coming week is a vital moment to establish rapport among the senior public servants who will handle what is arguably the most convoluted and far-reaching diplomatic deal of modern times.
Without "significant progress" on all three priorities in the divorce, Barnier warns, EU leaders will not let Davis open talks on a free trade relationship that May and much of British business want to have ready by the time Britain leaves.
For now, the EU says May’s offer to guarantee the rights of 3-million Europeans in Britain falls short. It is also unhappy at Britain’s refusal to accept EU judges as ultimate arbiters of disputes — an issue that could get an early airing as London seeks a quick fix to prevent its withdrawal from the Euratom pact disrupting its nuclear industry and medical imaging.
Still, EU leaders are unanimously speaking of rare harmony among them.