Why is anyone surprised the UK and EU do not agree about Brexit?

Dan Roberts Brexit policy editor
It took three meetings to lay bare the extent of divisions between the UK and EU. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Like a collision between supertankers, the clash between British and European Brexit negotiators has been a long time coming, but no less spectacular for it.

The EU course was set at least six months ago, when European commission negotiators first determined that the most practical way to disentangle Britain’s complex membership was to separate out the even more vexed question of future trade relations, which requires unanimous national approval, and leave it until later. Draft guidelines published in March by the European council confirmed that leaders in other EU capitals also viewed this as the best way to maximise their chances of getting Britain to help fill holes in the budget before it leaves.

But the direction of the UK government has been equally clear for almost as long. Relying in part on EU constitutional law for support, British officials have argued that it would be absurd to discuss how the country will leave without, in the words of article 50, also “taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the union”. The fact that it will be easier for Theresa May to write a cheque if she has something to show for it should not have escaped anyone.

Yet when it finally came, the revelation of these two diametrically opposed positions still had the capacity to send shockwaves throughout Europe. It took four days for news of a disastrous Downing Street dinner to reach public attention via a German newspaper leak. As if discovering gambling in Casablanca, the bank holiday air in London was thick with furious government sympathisers accusing the Europeans of trying to poison talks by revealing the proceedings of a supposedly private supper.

The surprise should have been that it took this long for London’s pro-Brexit political and media classes to notice something was awry.

Wednesday’s dinner was the third time May and her senior team have met senior EU leaders in recent days, to hear remarkably similar messages. The European council president, Donald Tusk, was first sent to relay the necessary information on 6 April. When the European parliament president, Antonio Tajani, made the same point during a visit to London on 20 April, his mobile phone rang within two hours of him leaving Downing Street, as the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, urgently sought to find out if the point was sinking in.

In the end, it was only when Barnier and his boss, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, delivered the message in person that the penny began to drop in chancelleries and newsrooms across Europe.

News of May and Juncker’s disastrous Downing Street bust-up was first relayed to Angela Merkel by the time the EU delegation returned to their London hotel. Juncker followed up the next morning with a personal phone call to the German chancellor, who incorporated her fury into a scheduled speech to the German parliament.

Whether they come back from this first act denouement in time to move on to the next drama depends in part on whether both sides start taking a more realistic account of their opponent’s position.

German government sources are already hinting at a possible compromise, involving the UK agreeing to a rough formula for calculating its divorce settlement rather than a final figure. British ministers privately acknowledge the need to pay something, even if still riling their EU interlocutors in public by questioning the legality of any claim.

The fear among business leaders is that the political clash suits hardliners on both sides: British eurosceptics who favour a “clean Brexit”, rather than any further messy compromises, and Brussels officials whose real aim is to send a salutary warning to other nationalist movements tempted to agitate for their own exit.

Until the opposing politicians are no longer “shocked” to discover they have differing views of the talks, little else can proceed.

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