It is more than a month into our two-year negotiation with the EU and we are yet to hear of anything productive. What are getting is lots of rhetoric about the negotiations and how they could or should go, with the usual characters playing their typical parts. Theresa May was widely criticized for her view that EU officials are interfering with the General Election last week, with the European Commission responding by saying that they are ‘too busy’ to be bothering about it at all. President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, is perhaps the chief anti-Brexit voice from within the Union. Juncker is also the easiest official on the other side to fit into the mould of “the elite”, being Prime Minister and then finance minister of Luxembourg – a rich country of just 600,000, before joining the organisations of the EU. Juncker is the natural equal to our own ‘bloody difficult woman’, and it was the dinner between him and Theresa May a couple of weeks ago that seemingly went so badly. This week, Juncker came out with the line that ‘English is losing importance’ in Europe, a typically barbed statement from a notoriously tricky adversary. Following his dinner at number 10, Juncker said that “I’m leaving Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before.” Despite this, Juncker does not actually have a formal role in the negotiations, but will surely have a hand in developing the Commission’s position. Even Angela Merkel was said to be annoyed at Juncker's recent behavior and attitude. Either way, Juncker already appears to be changing the tone of talks before the official negotiations even begin.
Juncker’s partner in crime is former Prime Minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt, who now acts as lead Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament. Verhofstadt has too been the bane of Eurosceptics since the referendum, often ridiculing the whole idea of Brexit. This week however, he penned an unusually productive feeling piece in the FT, where he says “I believe that a Brexit deal remains more likely than unlikely. There is more that unites the two sides than separates them and, regardless of what is said in the build-up to negotiations, a no-deal scenario would be a disaster for all.” Like Juncker, Verhofstadt will not be directly involved in negotiations, and as the Parliament has no formal involvement either, his influence is generally overstated.
Towards the other end of the scale we have former Prime Minister of Poland and now President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. Tusk is generally serving as a calming and mediating force, as he showed last week when saying that everyone needs to calm down and stop arguing following the reports of the unhappy dinner and the continued jibes from Juncker. Tusk seems genuinely displeased by some of the rows and bad will around the negotiations, and certainly is the keenest for talks to lead to an outcome that works for both sides. Luckily for us, Tusk is the maybe the most important figure at play, being in charge of organising the Council’s negotiating position. Finally, we have former French foreign minister and Chief negotiator for the European Commission, Michel Barnier. Barnier is also largely seen as a pragmatist in contrast to Juncker, and is in charge of the day-to-day negotiating process. He, like Tusk, will play a large part in keeping things running smoothly, and will be another figure that May would like to keep on the good side of.
Emmanuel Macron trumped Marine Le Pen in the French election, and whilst Macron is openly a lover of everything European Union, his premiership should see a much more stable and focussed Union for us to negotiate with than Le Pen would have provided. A key economic advisor of Macron has said that we can expect him to be ‘tough’ on Brexit, but also that the UK and Europe shared a ‘mutual interest’ in maintaining economic prosperity.
Lastly, the EU has indicated it now expects an upfront bill of around €100 million, which David Davis immediately rejected. Whilst EU lawyers have conceded that such a demand would never be legally enforceable, the issue of the divorce bill wants to be settled early on by both sides, and it this point it looks like we are moving further apart on this issue, rather than coming together.
For more of this, please have listen to the Last Week In Brexit Podcast, where we have the room to really get stuck into the more complex issues.