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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Detailed Brexit talks begin under cloud of division

As if to underline a much-discussed gulf in preparations, the EU officials arrived with thick dossiers while the British sat with their hands on the bare table. Within an hour it emerged that Mr Davis was only there for the opening salvoes and would soon depart back to his Whitehall office

British secretary of state for exiting the European Union David Davis (L) is welcomed by the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, prior to their meeting at the European Union Commission headquarters in Brussels on July 17, 2017. Thierry Charlier / AFP
British secretary of state for exiting the European Union David Davis (L) is welcomed by the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, prior to their meeting at the European Union Commission headquarters in Brussels on July 17, 2017. Thierry Charlier / AFP

Detailed negotiations on the British withdrawal from the European Union got under way in Brussels on Monday with the team from London arriving under a cloud of rancour and division.

David Davis, the British cabinet minister responsible for the talks, and Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, got down to business immediately, with two apparently telling developments at the outset.

As if to underline a much-discussed gulf in preparations, the EU officials arrived with thick dossiers while the British sat with their hands on the bare table. Within an hour it emerged that Mr Davis was only there for the opening salvoes and would soon depart back to his Whitehall office.

The first indication of how the discussions are going is expected at a press conference on Thursday.

The disparity of the positions in the talks is the subject of a tidal wave of comment in Britain and around the continent.

The main development since British prime minister Theresa May submitted the letter instructing Brussels to start the two-year exit period has been that Whitehall has accepted demands for an exit payment that could go as high as €100 billion (Dh422bn). Officials last week said the talks would determine “a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state”.

Also top of the agenda in the first round of talks is the corresponding rights of EU citizens still living in Britain and those of Britons resident in the EU countries.

Mr Davis said it was important to "lift the uncertainty" on the issue.

The third issue both sides want to address is free movement across the Irish border. According to the mandate set for the talks, these three issues must be resolved before moving on to discussion of transitional arrangements and a long-term trading framework.

The brevity of Mr Davis’ appearance appeared to underline the gravity of infighting in the British cabinet over Brexit. Mrs May and Mr Davis have been thought to favour a clean break with Europe.

Other leading figures seek a closer link to the world's biggest trading bloc. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, was accused of “treachery” on the front page of the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph on Monday after he said some of his colleagues were fighting his agenda of a two-stage Brexit.

In comments that confirmed the level of division in the highest echelons of the ruling Conservative party, Mr Hammond said his priority was a European deal that protected British jobs and living standards.

His rivals said he was acting as if he was fighting pirates maniacally keeping him hostage on a ship — Britain — sailing off across the high seas.

The lines of abuse and vitriol are not neatly drawn between the leave and remain camps.

Dominic Cummings, a prominent Leave campaigner, took to Twitter to suggest a well-hidden conspiracy between Mr Hammond and Mr Davis to achieve a compromise arrangement that keeps Britain close to the EU. He suggested Mr Davis was as “lazy as a toad” and a “perfect stooge”.

Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, was also in Brussels for a separate meeting of EU foreign ministers. He faced the indignity of being invited to whistle by reporters who reminded him that last week that he had said the EU would not get an exit settlement from Britain. He riled Brussels mandarins by suggesting they “go whistle”.

With civil servants in charge of the detailed talks, Mr Davis can attend a meeting of the British cabinet on Tuesday where Mrs May is set to rebuke her most senior colleagues. A spokesman for the prime minister said leaks and back-biting must stop.

“Cabinet must be able to hold discussions on government policy in private and the prime minister will be reminding her colleagues of that at the cabinet meeting tomorrow," the spokesman said. "She will just be reminding them of their responsibilities,"

Behind the storm and fury lie issues of real concern. Leading car industry figures in the UK expressed fears that an EU free trade deal with Japan, due to come into effect after the British exit, would decimate an industry that employs tens of thousands.

And a study by a leading expert on the food industry said disruption to supply chains could cause shortages on shop shelves and lead to regulatory black holes.

“To leave the EU would sever the UK from many bodies which underpin food, from scientific advisory bodies to regulators, from research programmes to subsidies to regions,” Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London, and others wrote. “What is going to replace these? There is silence” from the government, they said.