29th March: Theresa May notifed the EU of the UK’s intention to leave the EU through the Article 50 procedure.
Then 29th April the European Council agreed its negotiation guidelines for Michel Barnier, the chief Brexit negotiatior on the EU side. A summary of the guidelines – that committed the EU side to a phased schedule of negotiations – can be found here. At that stage the UK had no plan of its own how to schedule the Brexit talks, and still does not really.
Brexit Minister David Davis then made it clear on 14th May that he thought the schedule issue would “be the row of the summer” as the FT reported. The General Affairs Council nevertheless formalised the negotiation directives for Barnier on 22nd May.
Then on 19th June, at the first official round of negotiations, David Davis agreed to the EU’s proposed schedule.
So much for this being the row of the summer. EU 1, UK 0.
If not the fight of the summer, then perhaps the whinge of the autumn?
Last week – before the start of the third negotiation round – Davis was appealing to the EU to loosen its schedule, and that was before the the negotiation round itself brought scant little progress (good Politico summary here). I tweeted my annoyance with Davis’s tactics last week.
Then today May’s spokesperson was at it, repeating the same line (thanks Fabian Zuleeg for drawing my attention to it). This then led to this excellent question from Stuart Bonar:
Why is the UK government actually doing this? And what impact does this have?
Any attempt to answer needs to see the bigger picture of how negotiations work. First, in a negotiation of the huge magnitude of Brexit, the matter of how to negotiate, when, and in what order, has to be cleared up before negotiations can really begin. That’s why, for example, negotiations for a country to join the EU are split up into chapters. Make each stage a more manageable bite size and you do not leave all the nasty stuff for the cliffhanger summit at the end.
The second and perhaps more important issue is that reneging on what has already been agreed (or being seen publicly to try to do so) erodes trust between the negotiation teams. If the little that has been agreed cannot actually be built upon, everyone returns to square one.
What is Davis’s game? The only thing that has been agreed – the schedule – is being called into question before any proper conversation about the substance has even started. Trust is eroded and the negotiation is even more in peril than it already was.
There are a few plausible explanations: that Davis did not really know what he was committing to in June, and does now, and is worried, and maybe has even learned something. Or – related – that he did not actually trust the EU was serious in June (Simon Usherwood’s take). That the UK side is manoeuvring towards making the negotiations fail. That the UK side is trying to stall, to delay, knowing the pickle it finds itself in (Steve Bullock’s take). That party political games are the cause – the rise of Jacob Rees Mogg spooked Davis, who then felt he had to tack towards hardcore Brexit (Pascal LTH’s take). Or that Davis felt he had to at least let negotiations start and had to agree to the schedule to facilitate that (Henning Meyer’s take).
Steve Bullock also wondered if all of this was somehow connected to May’s promised big announcement or development slated for 21st September. Plus with Tory Party conference on the horizon things are likely to get more messy before they start to improve.
And all the time the Brexit clock on the two year period until 29th March 2019 continues to tick.
[Correction 5.9.17, 1400]
A comment from a friend on Facebook alerted me to a couple of glitches with how I had explained the dates in this blog entry, not least because I’d used the dates of the articles about the meetings rather than the dates of the meetings themselves. All now corrected above!
All the above explanations of the British government’s flounderings are partly true. It is however futile to attempt to discern any underlying rationale for what Mrs. May and her ministers are doing. That the British government should wish to leave the European Union at this time and in these circumstances is an act of wilful irrationality. This irrationality simply expresses itself in different and even self-contradictory ways at different times during the Brexit negotiations.