Brexit secretary David Davis took part in less than an hour of discussions with the EU on the first day of substantive negotiations with Brussels before his early return to Westminster prompted suggestions that the government’s parliamentary weakness was impeding the talks.
Officials for the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) insisted that Davis had always intended to leave the talks after a meet and greet with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, but the cabinet minister’s swift exit from the proceedings raised eyebrows in Brussels.
Shortly after Davis’s return, he voted twice with the government to defeat a Labour motion that would have increased the amount of time allotted to backbenchers’ legislation. The vote carried a three-line whip from the government.
EU diplomats have feared since the general election that Theresa May’s lack of a parliamentary majority could prove a distraction or actively hinder progress in the negotiations.
Davis’s departure from Brussels came shortly after he had called for the negotiating teams to “get down to business”.
Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, claimed the British government was proving itself unable to negotiate.
He said: “Since the election, the government has been in disarray. There is no agreed cabinet position on vital Brexit issues, the negotiating team is not prepared and the prime minister has lost her authority. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the risks are increasing day by day.
“David Davis can hardly say this is the time to ‘get down to business’ and then spend only a few minutes in Brussels before heading back to Whitehall.
“We need a fresh approach and to see real progress in negotiations. That means engaging with the substance of talks. And it means resolving vital issues such as citizens’ rights that have already dragged on for too long.”
A spokeswoman for the Brexit department said that the departure had been planned and was not linked to a vote in parliament.
She said: “The secretary of state travelled to Brussels yesterday to kickstart the second round of negotiations to leave the European Union.
“As with any other international negotiation, those talks have now moved to technical working level discussions where over 90 UK officials will meet with their counterparts in the commission, enabling multiple conversations to take place at once.
“David Davis and Michel Barnier will be updated throughout the talks, before returning to negotiating table later this week. This approach is entirely consistent with all international negotiations, including the G7 and G20.”
Davis, who came with a negotiating team of 98 people, started the day with a joint appearance with Barnier in the Berlaymont building, the EU’s headquarters, during which the Brexit secretary called on the negotiating teams to get to grip with the detail of the talks.
“For us, it’s incredibly important we now make good progress,” he told journalists. “Now it is time to get down to work and make this a successful negotiation.”
His remarks echoed those of Barnier, who said: “We will now delve into the heart of the matter. We need to examine and compare our respective positions in order to make good progress.”
Davis, however, spent just 10 to 15 minutes alone with Barnier, in what was described by British officials as a “friendly” chat. Senior officials then joined the two men for a meeting of between 45 minutes and an hour during, during which photographers captured an unfortunate image of the EU negotiating team with papers piled in front of them opposite a British team devoid of any documents, prompting some mockery on social media at the UK’s lack of preparedness.
British government officials insisted that Davis had merely yet to retrieve documents from his briefcase.
Once the chief negotiators and their key aides left each other, it was left to officials to carry out technical discussions. Civil servants split into separate working groups to discuss citizens rights’, the divorce settlement and a host of other technical issues intended to prevent people and companies from falling into a black hole on Brexit day.
The politically charged issue of the Irish border is being handled by the two deputy negotiators: commission official Sabine Weyand and DExEU’s Olly Robbins. During the current round of talks, both sides expect to map out their differences rather than strike any final agreements.
Barnier, whose negotiating team is half the size of the UK’s, said he would be in contact with Davis throughout the week and the two would have “a rendezvous” on Thursday to take stock.
Further talks are expected in late August and the autumn ahead of a Brussels summit in late October, where EU leaders will decide whether the UK has made “sufficient progress” on the Brexit divorce to allow trade talks to go ahead.
The British had set themselves the goal this week of interrogating the EU’s negotiators on their proposals as set out in nine position papers, particularly with regard to the financial claims being made by the 27 remaining EU member states.
It is understood the group working on citizens’ rights was the last to finish their talks, running 15 minutes past the 6.30pm finish time.
The first round of talks on 19 June had been largely theatrics, sources admitted, with this week being regarded as the first proper opportunity for both sides to engage with the key issues.
On Tuesday morning, Robbins (the permanent secretary to DExEU), Tim Barrow (Britain’s ambassador to the EU) and other British officials will meet Barnier’s deputy Weyand to reflect on progress during day one and to set the agenda for day two, a UK official said.
A DExEU spokesman said: “As the secretary of state has said, it’s time to get down to business.
“Both sides have today got round the table and started the serious business of working through our positions in a number of areas.
“We recognise that this will be a complicated and technical process and we look forward to coming back tomorrow to make progress on the work we have begun today.”
The European commission declined to comment on the latest round of talks before Thursday.