Tensions rise between ‘tough guy’ Britain and ‘intransigent’ EU

Each side of the Brexit table blames the other for the stalemate. Is there a path forward?

Theresa May travels to Brussels on Thursday with no hope of moving on to talks about a post-Brexit trade deal before December, as other EU leaders express frustration over Britain's approach to the negotiations. European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan this week accused Brexiteers of being "hooked on brinkmanship" with a negotiating repertoire limited to "the tough-guy approach".

British negotiators, however, view themselves not as tough guys but as injured parties who face intransigent, inflexible interlocutors in Brussels. From Whitehall, the story of the negotiations over the past few weeks has been one of a series of concessions from Britain met with little more than a shrug in Brussels.

The EU insists that there must be "sufficient progress" on citizens' rights, Ireland and the divorce bill before talks can start on the future trading relationship. The British side are confident that they are close to reaching the target on citizens' rights, and the prime minister will on Thursday announce further moves to ease the path of EU citizens who wish to remain in Britain.

There has been progress on Ireland, too, and Brexit secretary David Davis told MPs this week that he expects EU leaders to agree that the negotiations are close to achieving as much progress as they can before moving on to trade talks. The British government argues that it is impossible to determine future arrangements about the Border until there is some agreement on the future customs relationship and how comprehensive a free trade agreement will be.


Mind the gap

It’s on the divorce bill that the biggest gap remains and where British negotiators complain that the EU side are being unreasonable. For Britain it has always been clear that the actual sum that Britain will pay on departure can only be agreed at the very end of the negotiations on the withdrawal agreement.

The British express outrage at the EU’s dismissive response to Theresa May’s Florence speech, which included a pledge to honour all of Britain’s obligations and to ensure that other member states will not be worse off in the current EU budget period. Pointing to pressure from hardliners within her own party, British officials say May cannot go much further on the money than she has already.

They take exception to suggestions from the EU that Britain is untrustworthy, pointing out that, although British governments have long been awkward in dealings with the EU, they have always followed through on what they agreed. And when Europeans complain that the British cabinet is too divided over Europe to negotiate effectively, they point out wearily that the issue has divided all British cabinets.