The EU is wary of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for swift negotiations on a post-Brexit free-trade deal while Britain is still settling its withdrawal terms, but the bloc is not ruling out early talks.
Responding to May’s letter to Brussels on Wednesday which triggered a two-year countdown to leaving the EU, European leaders lined up to repeat that London must deal with its divorce before negotiating the comprehensive trading partnership that the prime minister wants.
On Thursday, French President Francois Hollande told her on the telephone that “talks must at first be about the terms of withdrawal,” notably the rights of expatriate citizens and money Britain owes to cover commitments made as an EU member.
“On the basis of the progress made, we could open discussions on the framework of future relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union,” Hollande told May, according to a statement issued by the president’s office.
That echoed German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday.
She said Britain must first work out how to unwind its relationship with the EU and pay its debts.
“Only then, later, can we talk about our future relationship,” Merkel said.
However, behind the bald statements lies a more nuanced approach acknowledging that many of the issues to which the exit treaty must bring legal clarity cannot be resolved without some understanding of how trade and other relations between Britain and the EU are going to work.
“It is not too early to start outlining the contours of our new partnership today, even if it is too early to start negotiating,” EU chief Brexit negotiator, former French minister Michel Barnier, said in a speech last week.
In other words, while talks are to focus on Barnier’s priorities of citizens’ rights, budget obligations and border arrangements, notably in Ireland, there would have to be some idea of the future relationship to inform how those are settled.
“This issue about negotiating in a sequence or in parallel has got a little theological,” a senior official involved in preparing the Brexit negotiations said. “In fact, we must have some discussion about the future trading relationship from the start, even if it’s not negotiation.”
One possibility might be to set Britain a goal of showing it is getting on with agreeing the outline divorce before allowing trade talks to start.
The brief and never-before-used Article 50 of the EU treaty asserts that a state leaving the EU must negotiate “arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the union.”
The hard line on “no trade talks before a divorce deal” is intended in part, diplomats say, to concentrate British minds on the EU’s push for London to pay a leaving bill that they estimate at about 60 billion euros (US$64 billion), as well as to clarify the legal status of millions of expatriate Europeans.
However, another senior Brexit negotiator said there were differences among the 27 nations and some talk of a trade deal was likely fairly early on.
“We would be in the camp that says to start the discussions on the future relationship as quickly as possible,” the negotiator said.
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