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

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.)

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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.

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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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