Brexit: Whatever happened to the “row of the summer”?

19th June 2017

On Friday this blog asked whether there had been a UK government u-turn on “sequencing” in the Brexit negotiations, which started today.

Sequencing is (or at least was) important for the UK.

Article 50 envisages two agreements: an exit (or divorce) agreement, dealing with issues related to the departure, and an agreement on future relations, which for the UK essentially means trade.

The UK want(ed) both to be negotiated together, in parallel.

The EU wanted a number of preliminary issues discussed before the parties moved on to discussing future trade relations.

In crude terms, the UK has (had) more leverage over the trade deal the more it was tied to the exit deal.  In the latter, the UK has things the EU wants regarding cash and citizenship.  Once those issues are settled, the weaker the UK’s negotiating position on trade.

So important was sequencing to the UK that two months ago the relevant minister threatened that it would be the “row of the summer“.

On Friday (as set out at Friday’s post) there were reports that this position had changed – that, in effect, there had been a U-turn.

What made these reports plausible was that they were not splashed as exclusives but seem to have been mentioned by diplomatic sources almost without realising the significance.

When asked, the Department for Exiting the European Union provided a non-denial denial, just plausible enough to kill the story with the mainstream media.

It looked like a denial, so it must have been one.

But it was not, if you read it carefully.  And when asked directly, the department side-stepped the question. (All this is set out at Friday’s post.)


And so what happened today, on the first formal day of the negotiations?

Michel Barnier , the chief EU negotiator, stated:

In a first step, we will deal with the most pressing issues. We must lift the uncertainty caused by Brexit. We want to make sure that the withdrawal of the UK happens in an orderly manner.

Then, in a second step, we will scope our future relationship.

And this is affirmed by the agreed agenda published on the UK government site.


So the UK government has capitulated on day one, on an issue which was to be the “row of the summer”.  it did not even get to midsummer’s day.

But what is the significance?

First, it has shown the futility of the UK boasting and blustering with red lines. This may not be the first one to be crossed.

Second, it shows the stronger negotiating position of the EU, and the benefits of long and detailed preparation.

Third, it may show that the UK (unlike in May) is less able to negotiate the UK’s future trade relationship with the EU, as the the UK government since the election does not have an agreed position.

And fourth, never rely on a government press office, especially DExEU.

But overall: this capitulation should be welcomed.  It was a silly and weak position.  It is better that the UK drop it now, and use the valuable time to get a sensible discussion rather than have a row over the summer.

It was, as some have said on Twitter, the row-back and not the row of the summer.


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14 thoughts on “Brexit: Whatever happened to the “row of the summer”?”

  1. Seeing as a large political chunk of sequencing was the issue of divorce payments, do you think this signals the increased likelihood of the UK taking that matter of the divorce payment to court rather than letting it get in the way of other things?

  2. Thank you. Can we also be clear about ‘sequencing’ at the OTHER end of negotiations? Davis quotes the EU as saying ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. But it is surely conceivable that we would have an agreed exit deal before we have a agreed trade deal, is it not, since we will almost certainly exit the EU before we have agreed a trade deal?

    1. The “Nothing is agreed…everything is agreed” line does not appear to be an official EU statement on the Brexit process. Rather it looks like glib blather from British politicians attempting to convince people they understand Europe. Although the phrase has been used in some formal negotiations (the Iran Geneva accord for instance), it doesn’t apply here.

      Article 50 is clear – it only needs to take account of the framework of a future deal. That doesn’t mean the future deal is agreed at the same time. A framework can also be a pretty lightweight structure – so no need for hard trade details (beyond the Irish boarder issue) to be thrashed out before 31 March 2019.

      The EU seems intent on treating this like a heart-op – tying off each stage of the process as they go. They don’t want the UK suddenly trying to re-negotiate something at the 11th hour that had previously been agreed. That said, such behaviour would be counter productive for the UK, since it would destroy trust ahead of vital trade negotiations with the rest of the world.

      The EU is also clear it won’t negotiate a new deal until the UK is a third country (outside EU political structures – no votes, vetoes or MEPs to mess things up). The EU has also clearly resigned itself to our leaving, despite politely leaving the door open just in case we change our mind. It is now focused on limiting the financial and political damage to itself – the UK’s fate is secondary.

      If the UK’s position really is for a complete break and then a complete renegotiation (which could take 7 to 10 years) then we should ask for a long, smooth transition. The most obvious route would be to remain in the Single Market / Customs Union (with budget payments but no political involvement) for five years. Then move to being a free-standing European Economic Area Agreement signatory (possibly also with non-voting membership of EFTA) for another five years.

      This would give us the 10 years to negotiate our new, beautiful, deep and meaningful relationship. It would give businesses time to adapt (relocate). And, from the Tory party’s perspective – it might allow them to win the next two elections: 2022 “we have left as promised but are in the middle of negotiations don’t rock the boat”; 2027 “see 2022”.


      1. As I understand it, we cannot remain in the Customs Union if we are not an EU member under the current rules. At least there is no example of a non-EU country which is ‘in’ the CU. True, Turkey is has a CU agreement on industrial goods, but which excludes agriculture and food, but unless I am mistaken, it is not a member. This is where it get decidedly tricky to avoid a hard border for NI. I think that it is likely that there must be some form of formal CU agreement between UK and EU on this point, which could have a more limited scope than the Turkey deal, thereby allowing the UK to cut bilateral trade deals – but these are uncharted waters – so it is not clear if a rule change is required and what voting/acceptance majority is required. probably it will be a part of a mixed agreement down the line.

        EEA membership is likely to come up pretty quickly – does the trigger of Art 50 mean that the UK exits the EEA in March 2018 i.e. is leaving the EEA automatic? There will be different views on this – and it could be that the UK automatically leaves the EEA 12 months after it leaves the EU. But we do not know yet.

        If the UK can remain a member of the EEA until it has a FTA signed, then there is a ready made transition period on the single-market – but I suspect the CU is a different case and will require a seperate agreement (which, if the UK is to cut bilateral deals, need to be limited in scope)

  3. One of the things that makes it difficult for a government to climb down from an extreme stance is criticism for ‘U-turns’. To arrive at any sort of deal, much more the softest-of-all-Brexits that is now being posited, is going to take an awful lot of climbing down from the government’s position to date. Perhaps those of us who would prefer not to plunge over a Brexit precipice could politely refrain from saying ‘I told you so’ during the process?

    1. Policy-making and official decision-making is better for scrutiny.

      In my view, there is a greater danger in removing that scrutiny. If ministers and officials know that their (entirely foreseeable) mistakes will be exposed, then more effort will go into making better decisions and policies.

  4. The Lords must feel vindicated, for it’s their two amendments to the Notification of Withdrawal bill that will now most likely mark the beginning and end of the negotiations.

    Theresa May, David Davis, listen to your elders. Just as you wish future leaders will listen to you after you eventually quit the Executive and are awarded peerages.

  5. I imagine negotiations going something like this:
    David Davies “we want x”,
    Michael Barnier “x is counter to the principles of the EU, you can have y”,
    DD “hmm, do we still get to leave the EU with y?”,
    MB “of course”,
    DD “ok, great, y it is”

  6. Surely it is well known that the EU’s way of doing politics is to work towards some sort of consensus, not the British confrontational way of doing things.

    Can anyone tell me what the benefit of leaving the EU is? I haven’t heard any, or not any that make sense.

    1. An end to unrestricted migration. No more subsidies for French farmers. Spanish fishermen banned from our waters. An end to the burden of EU regulations. Outward-looking trade. Freedom from the interference of the ECJ. Restoration of sovereignty. Take back control. Mother of parliaments! Liberation! Prosperity! Destiny! A brighter future! Limitless power! UNLIMITED RICE PUDDING!

      I’m sorry, that segued into an old Doctor Who rant. Must be the heat.

      1. I don’t think it is worth leaving the EU for these things – and we can control immigration under EU rules but have chosen (Mrs. May was Home Secretary for 6 years) not to. Which regulations are a burden? Sovereignty??? What interference from the ECJ? We haven’t lost control thought British Democracy is severely strained, with people having to go to court to get the supremacy of parliament established etc.

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