The latest round of Brexit talks between the British Government and the European Commission gets underway in Brussels Monday afternoon, though expectations for meaningful progress between the two sides in the coming days are low.
This is the third round of the negotiations on Brexit, with at least one more weeks of talks – and possibly two, sources say – likely before European leaders decide in October whether sufficient progress has been made on the exit agreement to begin talks on the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
The British side are anxious to discuss the future trade relationship between the two sides but EU negotiators have been adamant that more progress on the terms of Britain’s exit must be made before that phase of the talks can start. Relations between the two sides remain strained, according to background briefings from both sides, and they have been playing down expectations for this week’s talks in recent days.
This week’s talks get underway at 5 pm Brussels time Monday, with a plenary session led by the two delegation leaders, Brexit secretary David Davis for the UK and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, according to a schedule published by the European Commission.
Two days of meetings between the working groups for each side follow on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the full plenary session with reconvene on Thursday to assess progress.
There is also a strand on Ireland, led by the negotiating chiefs’ deputies, Olly Robbins for the UK and Sabine Weyand for the EU. These meetings will discuss the implications for the Belfast Agreement of the British exit, and the future of EU funding for the peace process. They will also discuss the future of the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland, although there is a high degree of confidence in Dublin and Brussels that these bilateral arrangements between the two countries will remain largely unaffected by the British exit.
“There’s nothing to suggest that this stuff will prove difficult,” said one source.
However, Brussels sources say that EU will categorically not discuss the future of customs arrangements on the Irish border, as this falls under the “future relationship” talks, which the EU is unwilling to open yet.
The EU side says that it must achieve progress on the question of citizens’ rights – the status of EU citizens in the EU, and vice versa – and on the bill the British must pay on exit before the future relationship will be discussed.
Though the British government does not dispute that it will have to pay a bill – dubbed a “divorce settlement” – when it leaves to cover outstanding liabilities, the size of the bill and the means for calculating it are likely to prove troublesome. Some (EU) estimates have put the bill as high as €60 billion, and paying the EU a large amount to money to leave is likely to be politically difficult for the British government.
The domestic British landscape shifted significantly on Sunday when the Labour Party altered its position, suggesting that the UK should remain part of the EU single market and customs union for a least a transitional phase after Brexit. The development is being seen in Brussels as opening the possibility of a softer Brexit.
Meanwhile, the French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chncellor Angela Merkel, Italian PM Paolo Gentiloni and Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy are meeting Monday evening in Paris to discuss migration and defence policy, though the leaders are also expected to touch upon Brexit in their discussions, Brussels sources say.