Brexit talks are laced with distrust and suspicion as British and European Union negotiators ready to identify even apparently trivial oversights as ways to gain the upper hand.
According to a British government worker writing anonymously for a London political magazine, the failure of European negotiators to ensure water was available at a recent Brussels meeting was later viewed by the British team as evidence of “unsporting tactics.”
'Blood on the floor'
For weeks now, EU and British officials have been warning that already complex talks on Britain's exit from the European Union are being hampered by deep-rooted mistrust.
British lawmakers accuse their erstwhile European partners of wanting to extract revenge for last year’s referendum; their European counterparts and officials say the British must agree to a divorce bill of upwards of $50 billion before Brussels will negotiate on a possible trade deal for post-Brexit Britain.
In an interview this week with a British newspaper, former European Commission president Roman Prodi warned that talks between Britain’s Brexit minister, David Davis and Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, had started badly with “blood on the floor.”
He urged both sides to make compromises — especially over Britain’s future trade arrangements with Europe — saying there was an imprecise grasp of the real economic consequences of Brexit. “The weight of damage is probably heavier on the UK side, but there is damage on both sides,” said Prodi.
And a former top British diplomat, Simon Fraser, says the formal talks, which began only two months ago, hadn't started well. Speaking on BBC Radio, Fraser, who campaigned in the run-up to last year’s Brexit referendum for the country to retain EU membership, said, “I don't think they have begun particularly promisingly, frankly, on the British side.”
“We haven't put forward a lot because, as we know, there are differences within the [British] Cabinet about the sort of Brexit that we are heading for and until those differences are further resolved, I think it's very difficult for us to have a clear position.”
Fraser’s comments were rejected by a spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May, who said talks were moving quickly. He said Downing Street believed the Brexit bill Brussels says Britain will owe in outstanding financial obligations, as well as the future status of Britons living in Europe and Europeans living in Britain, would be settled by October, opening the way for talks to begin about a future trade deal.
That, however, is not the view of Brussels negotiators. And Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, has warned even if the Brexit bill is settled, he will veto moving on to trade talks if he is unsatisfied with the cross-border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Dublin and politicians in Northern Ireland, which voted against Brexit, oppose the return of a hard border between the north and south of the island, Britain’s only land frontier with the EU.
EU officials say the British government is not being clear about what it wants in terms of future relations with Europe. “The United Kingdom still has to come to terms with its negotiating mandate,” warned the EU commissioner for agriculture, Phil Hogan.
Britain’s Cabinet is sharply divided over whether the country should remain a member of the EU’s single market and customs union after Brexit. The increasingly powerful chancellor of the exchequer, (finance minister) Phil Hammond, backed by some of the country’s top business people, is trying to maneuver the ruling Conservatives away from a so-called ‘hard Brexit.’
Economic danger to Britain
On Wednesday, the deputy governor of the Bank of England, Sam Woods, issued a warning about the economic danger to Britain of leaving the EU without any trade deal. Even a transitional one, would cause “significant issues” for Britain’s private banks and could threaten the country’s financial stability, he said.
Hardline Brexiters in the Cabinet want a sharp break with the EU, arguing single market membership would prevent them from negotiating bilateral trade deals with non-EU states, stop Britain from ending free movement of Europeans into the country and force London to abide by the rulings of EU courts.
British voters appear to be increasingly worried about Brexit negotiations. In an opinion poll this week, 60 percent said they disapproved of the government's handling of Brexit, up 17 percent from April.
Jitters about the possible economic fallout from Brexit appear to also be impacting Britain’s property market, which bounced back quickly from the 2008 financial crash.
On Thursday, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said the growth of home prices and market activity had stalled in London and the southeast and that there was a lack of momentum, with low levels of buyer inquiries.