The EU’s declaration on the trade and security relationship with the UK after Brexit will be just five to 30 pages long, reflecting a lack of time to have an internal debate and scepticism that Theresa May will remain in Downing Street to deliver it, officials in Brussels have disclosed.
While the UK is seeking a “precise and substantive” document, to match the recently published 100-page white paper, officials in Brussels say the EU’s political declaration on the “future framework” has diminishing importance for them.
Brussels is aware that the prime minister needs the document, due in the autumn, to be a “sweetener” to the main withdrawal agreement, which will commit the UK to pay a £39bn divorce bill and spell out whatever difficult deal is sealed on the issue of the Irish border.
It will not be legally binding on either party but is designed to offer major economic actors some reassurance through a vision of the future trading and security relationship, and it will form part of the package on which the UK parliament and MEPs will ultimately vote in the new year.
Given doubts in Brussels that May will get a deal through parliament, or remain in Downing Street for long if she manages it with the help of Labour votes, there will not be the high level of detail that the British government has been seeking, sources said.
A senior EU official said that the paper could even be as short as “four or five pages”, the same length as the European council guidelines setting out the bloc’s headline objectives. “It can either be four five pages, or it could be a bit more elaborate but I think we are in the league of five to 25 to 35 pages. We have not time to thrash out the details,” the official said. “The more details you want the more advanced you should be in these negotiations.”
The official added: “The reality is that, imagine after March next year the UK gets rid of May, the hard Brexiters take over and Boris says: ‘Too bad. I am not interested in all this. I want a basic free trade agreement, I want all my freedom.’ We have to adjust.
“In the unlikely event of Jeremy Corbyn having a heart attack and Chuka Umunna taking over, he says the objective is to be in the European Economic Area. Why would we refuse?”
“The weight of it for the future is relative. Should a future UK government change course, we will have to adjust. Yes, there is a value in it but we should not over-inflate the value either.”
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has publicly trashed the UK’s core proposals in the white paper.
The UK is seeking a common rulebook on agricultural and industrial goods, along with a complicated customs arrangement, which would allow the UK to strike its own free trade agreements around the world, while maintaining the current lack of border checks on trade with the continent.
The EU official said the outlook was “not rosy” for the talks once they resume after an August break, with May’s premiership still dependent on the whim of the Brexiters, described as “Fox and friends” – in reference to the trade secretary, Liam Fox, and Donald Trump’s favourite news programme.
“We will probably get bogged down in very intense negotiations over Ireland and probably on the future relationship,” the official said. “Because the core of Chequers is not really workable so this will cost us some acrimonious discussions.
“The question is can we make something out of this that serves a purpose or really not. Is it still something feasible, departing from a literal reading from Chequers? That’s the real question.”
The EU’s leaders are expected to make their mark on the negotiations at a summit in Salzburg at the end of September, but officials in Brussels insist that despite lobbying from British cabinet ministers this summer the outlook will not radically change for the UK.
The official said: “They will step in at the end, they always do in Europe but it is unlikely that leaders will completely reverse the negotiating lines. So far it hasn’t happened. And why should they say to Barnier: you are too principled, you should not implement our principles and go for an unworkable model?”
Meanwhile, Elmar Brok, a German MEP who is a key ally of the chancellor, Angela Merkel, has backed a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, but warned that it needs to happen within months. “If there is no exit agreement until 29 March 2019, a hard Brexit will occur,” he said. “A referendum still in December or January could avert the hard Brexit.” (theguardian)