Does the EU want us as a good neighbour?

Telegraph View
An anti-Brexit protester holds up a European Union (EU) flag near the Houses of Parliament in London, on March 29, 2017 - AFP

Critical decisions concerning the future of Britain will be taken in Brussels tomorrow without any political leaders from this country present. Heads of government from the 27 other EU nations are gathering in the Belgian capital to agree draft guidelines for the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Our absence is the inevitable corollary of this country’s vote to leave the EU; yet the parameters that are set for these talks will affect us more than they will the rest of the bloc.

The EU has always insisted that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That applies to the bill, too.

They will constitute the mandate handed by the political leaders to the Commission for the next two years and will set the tenor of a process that is certain to be gruelling. Eventually, the UK seeks a deal that enables the country to trade easily and profitably with the continent while upholding healthy political and diplomatic relations with the EU and its constituent parts.

Brexit | The European Union’s draft negotiation principles

After Brexit, we can be a good neighbour, a market for their goods and a helping hand in times of trouble. Is that what the rest of the EU wants or not? After the June 23 referendum last year there were early threats of punishing the UK for having the temerity to want to run her own affairs again. These subsided for a while, with EU leaders lamenting the UK’s departure and appearing to offer hopes of a mutually agreeable final deal. But the response to the triggering of Article 50 took ministers aback and, if anything, the attitudes have hardened in recent weeks.

Leaked papers suggest a much more robust line will be taken by the EU, principally at the behest of Germany. Hopes that Theresa May and Angela Merkel might forge a bond that could steer these talks in the direction of mutual harmony have been confounded, not least because the German Chancellor has her own election to fight. Moreover, the assumption that Germany would not damage its own national interests by imposing a “hard” Brexit on the UK may have underestimated Berlin’s commitment to keeping the EU intact.

These negotiations will get off to a difficult start if the EU insists on Britain agreeing a “Brexit fee” before talks even get under way. Chancellor Merkel told German MPs yesterday that the UK’s “binding financial commitments” will be a priority from “the very start”. We may be ready to pay to retain access to some institutions and meet any outstanding obligations, such as pension liabilities. But the EU has always insisted that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That applies to the bill, too.

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