It didn’t go as horribly wrong as it could have done. A good photo with Merkel and Macron. Some encouraging words. A “green light” tweeted by Tusk.
The Prime Minister will be breathing a sigh of relief as she returns to London that her fellow leaders cut her some slack and gave her enough to show to see off her “no dealers” at home. For now.
But by the December Council, the “touching distance” on citizens’ rights will need to be closed. A new simplified system, with a presumption of staying – as announced by the Home Secretary and reinforced by the PM’s open letter – will show that the UK is honest in its intent.
But there are still sticking points. Brexit Secretary David Davis hinted this week at the shape of a compromise on family reunification – though it is not clear that would be accepted. And the UK may still have to give ground on the role of the European Court of Justice.
On money, she may finally be getting the message across that the “honouring commitments” reference in Florence is in addition to the €20bn for the existing budget period. Our panel of European journalists this Tuesday made clear that was not the understanding in their capitals. But by December, the Council’s conclusions make clear that words about commitments need to be turned into concrete propositions.
On Ireland, there may need to be some further reassurances on what happens if flexibility and imagination fail to solve the hard border/soft border conundrum.
The UK is urging acceleration of the second phase of talks on the future partnership. And we have had future partnership papers, ranging from the broad sweep of security issues to data protection and nuclear safeguards.
What we have yet to see is the core British ask on trade. In Florence, the Prime Minister defined the space: not Norway (too many obligations) and not Canada (too few rights). The European Union (EU) still thinks the UK wants all the benefits of the Single Market with what Michel Barnier describes as the “weak constraints” of the Canadian trade deal.
The EU will look to the UK to make a proposition on trade that goes further than the “not/not” proposition. To show any recognition of the EU’s concerns, Ministers will have to start making choices. Best access to the Single Market requires high alignment with EU regulations, and effective surveillance and enforcement. Low alignment and freedom to diverge introduces the potential for new non-tariff barriers and restricts market access rights for “regulated” services, including financial services.
The 27 EU member states can now set off doing their preparations for trade talks. It will be interesting to see whether conflicting views emerge. But we do not need to wait to know that there are differences of view within the Cabinet.
So, the UK needs to make sure it uses its next two months well to ensure that if and when we get to phase two, we are ready with a proposition that best serves both UK economic needs and political imperatives – and shows enough appreciation of the EU starting points to provide a basis for constructive negotiation in the months to follow.