Interestingly, whilst I don’t believe that there is a cunning plan at work, the government is set to respond to the calls of incompetence by publishing up to 12 position papers over the next two months. The first two of these papers, on the issues of a transitional customs agreement and how to solve the issue of the Irish border are set to be published next week, and are currently being approved by the cabinet. The papers will begin what ministers are calling a “big push” to counter claims that we currently have no idea what we are supposed to be negotiating. Supposedly, a majority of the work was completed a while ago, although there has been a serious “pick up of the pace” in recent weeks.
If we are to learn about the proposed transition plans as early as next week, it follows that we finally have some agreement within the cabinet on this issue following the flip-flopping of the last few weeks. Bloomberg is reporting that even ardent Brexiteers in the cabinet now accept that a transition is unavoidable, but with the issue of continued freedom of movement still up in the air, how much detail we see next week will be interesting to see. Going on previous releases, there won’t be nearly enough of it. There is also the pretty big question of what exactly we are going to transition to, although the chances of anybody having a clue on that front are even slimmer.
As to the negotiations themselves, the third round is set to start sometime within the next two weeks, with the primary matter of citizens’ rights still unresolved. Despite this, it is the divorce bill which is grabbing all the headlines, with the EU apparently trying to rush through a bill of £36bn over three years whilst many members of the cabinet are on holiday. It is rumoured that Barnier has suggested that the negotiation rounds due for October may not be scheduled until this matter is sorted. The reporting of this has been a bit muddled, with early reports suggesting that we were ready to compromise on the bill in order to progress the negotiations. Downing Street then said that Theresa May "does not recognise" the figure, although her spokesperson did reiterate that a financial settlement is expected. Some hard-line Brexit MPs like John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg however, still insist that we shouldn’t have to pay anything at all. It is all well and good publishing position papers on other issues, but until these two primary things are agreed upon the EU is reluctant to talk about anything else. I expect there to be a major compromise on the horizon, particularly on the issue of citizens rights, but likely also on the divorce bill, if the government wants to make any significant progress sooner rather than later. The clock is ticking.
Finally, the conversation around the possibility of EEA/EFTA membership continues to creep on. This piece in the FT does a good job at explaining the strategy but falls into some of the same traps that others continue to, namely around Norway being “a rule taker, not a rule maker” and continuing to pay into the EU budget. This paper from EFTA4UK is worth reading, doing a good job of showing why things aren’t that simple, and that Norway is in a better position than most realise.