The Guardian view on the Brexit talks: finding the right price to pay | Editorial

If, in the end, Britain does leave the EU, the least bad departure would be one that maintains a high level of cooperation with Europe. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA

The Downing Street official spokesperson refused to confirm it on the record, but key members of Theresa May’s cabinet agreed on Monday to increase Britain’s “divorce bill” offer to the European Union from the £20bn that the prime minister had signalled in Florence in September. This is a significant milestone. Three cheers for finally passing it? Certainly not. It would have been better if Britain had not voted to leave the European Union in the first place. Two cheers, then, for at least facing up to reality? That’s overly generous too, because the decision this week is extremely light on detail or figures. The best that can be said is that it is better to have decided to increase the payment than to have refused to do so. The most that the decision deserves is a cautious sigh of relief.

If, in the end, Britain does leave the EU, the least bad departure would be one that takes place on terms that maintain a high level of convergence and cooperation with the Europe it leaves behind. Such a “soft” Brexit would do least damage to the economy, be least disruptive to jobs, wages and working conditions, and do least violence to the rich texture of relationships that bind the British people to our nearest neighbours. Mrs May’s misguided wish to leave the single market and the customs union makes that task much more difficult than it should be. But any hope that this or any successor government can achieve a tolerable soft Brexit depends upon progress in the talks between the EU and the UK that reach an interim climax in Brussels next month. This week’s decision at least opens up that possibility.

This does not mean that the way is now clear ahead to a soft Brexit. It isn’t. There has been no deal yet on any of the three issues – money, rights and Ireland – that form the first part of the UK’s withdrawal process. In a speech on Tuesday the Brexit secretary David Davis repeated the standard government line that the UK and the EU are within touching distance of a deal on reciprocal rights for their respective citizens after Brexit. But there has been no detail there, beyond a rumour, denied on Tuesday, that the European Court of Justice may have a role in the enforcement process. There is certainly little meeting of minds on the UK’s land border with the Irish republic; dismayingly, British policy seems to have hardened against the frictionless border that ministers still profess, with diminishing credibility, to want in Ireland. The decision on money does not mean there is political agreement in London or Brussels about what Britain will get for its money either.

But Mrs May now has some domestic political clearance to talk terms with the EU in advance of the December summit. That was always going to be needed. The nub issues on money are, first, the size of the sum and, second, what it buys. In Florence, Mrs May said the UK would maintain its payments into the current EU budget, which covers the period to 2020. But the EU wants the UK to pay its share of ongoing programmes such as regional and overseas aid too, and to maintain accrued pension obligations to civil servants from its four decades in the EU. Some think that adds up to at least €60bn, which is considerably more than the £40bn figure doing the rounds in Westminster, especially at the current exchange rate.

It is important that Mrs May and the EU have enough time before 14 December to narrow the differences between them. That is made a little easier by this week’s ministerial decision, and by the deliberate vagueness about the numbers, because these will have to increase. Initial responses in Brussels have been cautiously positive. But Mrs May cannot expect to get everything she wants in return, certainly not in December, and in the case of a trade deal with the EU, not before March 2019 either. That means she is going to have to do a lot of dampening of Conservative and anti-European media expectations from now on. Since the Europhobes and the rightwing press wilfully refuse to understand the process on which the UK is embarked with the EU, this could be a time-consuming piece of firefighting. Mrs May has shown little sign yet that she is up for the task.

For once, though, Mrs May’s ministers have behaved sensibly. The cabinet’s big egos have kept quiet since making the decision (though the former minister Owen Paterson has written an article showing that, on the right, Brexit is a fundamentally neoliberal project with no place for higher NHS spending). This cabinet cannot be relied on over Europe, but they have made the least bad decision in the circumstances. They have done what is needed to keep Britain’s options open. And that, at least, is better than closing them off.