UK still asking for the impossible on single market

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier doesn’t think the UK understands how the single market works. He may be right.

At the end of the third round of Brexit talks, little progress seems to have been made on the key issues for the Withdrawal Agreement. As expected, the financial settlement is the biggest stumbling block with the EU unlikely to be “flexible” until the government makes its position clear on what it sees as its financial and moral obligations. So far, whilst UK negotiators have challenged the EU’s position paper on what it sees as the UK’s obligations, the government has yet to specify what it does see as the UK’s obligations. Speaking to reporters yesterday, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said:

To be flexible you need two points, our point and their point. We need to know their position and then I can be flexible.

Michel Barnier, chief Brexit negotiator for the EU

And during a joint press conference with Brexit secretary David Davis, Barnier said the UK was still making demands on single market access that were “simply impossible”. He pointed out that it was the UK’s decision to leave the EU, leave the single market and leave the customs union. He said the UK wants “to adopt its own standards and regulations” as well as “have these standards recognised automatically in the EU”. But he reasoned that “you cannot be outside the single market and shape its legal order”.

The EU seems confounded by the UK’s failure to understand properly the reality of what the single market is and how it works. As to why he has good reason to be confounded, it’s worth reading analysis of it by EU law expert David Allen Green.

Click on the tweet to see more:

Barnier makes a pretty fair assessment of the UK’s overall position so far (well, what we know of it). The government continues to maintain the UK will no longer participate in the single market and customs union even during a transition period. However, as the Institute of Government concluded, the UK position papers suggest the government would like to recreate something as similar to the status quo as possible. This would save businesses having to make many adjustments for the transition period as well as for when a future agreement is in place. Of course, the simple way to do this is to commit to staying in the single market and customs union during the transition period as the Labour party’s position is now.

As for talks on a transition period, there seemed little of it in this third round. At any rate, it’s clear Barnier doesn’t believe “sufficient progress” on withdrawal issues has been made to move onto it. However, it’s noteworthy that he specifically pointed out that it is the UK’s decision to leave both the single market and customs union as well as the EU. It shows the EU does not see Britain’s departure of the single market and customs union as a consequence of its departure from the EU. However, only yesterday, the prime minister said: “you can’t be a member of the single market unless you’re a member of the European Union”.

As Vote Leave Watch points out, Theresa May is wrong.

The Guardian’s politics live blog reports that when responding to questions after the press conference, Barnier said he did not think some of the issues had been debated in sufficient depth. And that he hoped there would be a debate in the UK about what taking part in the single market means, which he would be happy to be part of.

It’s pretty embarrassing the EU thinks the UK doesn’t understand the single market (especially as the government wants to take the UK out of it as well as retain all its benefits). But Barnier’s comments suggest the UK can still choose to stay in the single market as well as the customs union. The UK just can’t have all that both entails outside of them.

Of course, unless “sufficient progress” is made on the withdrawal issues, there may not even be a transition period or a future partnership agreement. Theresa May’s visit to Japan showed that countries the UK wants to have trade deals with in future are also paying close attention to Brexit talks. And at the moment, Japan’s message to the UK is for Brexit to mean “minimum damage” to its interests in the UK. A future trade deal may well rely on it.

Citizens’ rights and the Irish border

As well as the financial settlement, the EU has prioritised citizens’ rights and the Irish border in talks on the UK’s withdrawal. As this second joint update on where the two sides stand on citizens’ rights, there does seem to be some progress made.

But it seems the EU believes the UK is asking for the impossible again over Irish border issues. In a briefing after the press conference, journalists were told by EU officials that UK proposal appeared to be “predicated on the EU suspending the application of its own laws”, which the EU did not consider to be “a sound basis” for agreement.

Here’s a couple of tweets from the Guardian’s Lisa O’Carroll referring to the EU’s response to the UK paper on the Irish border:

Image: © Piotr Drabik / Flickr
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