Continental voices are now queuing up to demand a swift UK-EU trade deal

Continental voices are now queuing up to demand a swift UK-EU trade deal

Following last week’s completion of phase one of the Brexit negotiations, the second phase can now begin and everyone’s attention can finally turn to what really matters: trade.

It’s been a tortuous eight months of negotiations – in particular for the British Government, which has had to factor in contrasting opinions in its own Cabinet, in the Conservative and Labour parties, in business and in the country more widely.

Finding a compromise has not been easy. Especially with the failed Remain campaign expending considerable energy trying to reverse the popular decision through daily press campaigns, court cases, subversive meetings with EU negotiators and even a new pro-EU magazine.

The campaign of fear that so characterised Remain’s case before the vote (and which therefore probably largely fed the hysteria that followed it) will now, hopefully, be slowly put to bed.

One important group of actors conspicuously silent during these negotiations (and one that could have eased Number 10’s suffering a little during this initial phase) were the large European interests dependent on EU-UK cross-border trade.

EU member states were, however, asked not to hold bilateral negotiations with the UK for fear of undermining the common front presented by Brussels during the negotiations. The EU’s political strategy also sought, understandably, to discourage others from following the British people’s lead by painting the decision to leave the EU as an almost suicidal one, and to make the actual process of leaving as painful as possible for the government in charge at the time.

There was therefore an orchestrated and deafening silence from a number of quarters that might normally have backed the UK Government’s calls to talk trade as soon as possible. This would normally have included trade associations representing exporters to the UK, mega-port authorities which process those exports or European politicians from all levels of government whose constituencies are most likely to be hurt by a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, among many others.

Throughout phase one, they remained loyal to the stances of their governments, which in turn remained loyal to the EU’s negotiating strategy. Thankfully, those constraints have now been lifted.

As Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, said on Twitter last week after the deal was agreed:

Denmark’s Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, also sounded a note of optimism:

Belgium’s Prime Minister, Charles Michel, tweeted with a conciliatory tone:

While Italy’s Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, also sounded buoyant last Friday:

“A positive agreement was reached on Brexit. I am sure that the EU Council will launch talks. Italy has never stood for the ‘no deal’.”

Taking their lead from their heads of state, those with a stake in EU-UK trade can now push their weight around much more freely both in Brussels and national EU capitals to make sure their concerns are heard and their interests incorporated into negotiating positions.

As the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), Adam Marshall, said:

“After the noise and political brinksmanship of recent days, news of a breakthrough in the negotiations will be warmly welcomed by companies across the UK.”

News of the deal would have been music to the ears of companies, employees and tax collectors across the European continent too and the BCC suddenly had no trouble finding counterpart organisations in Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium — countries that account for around 70% of EU-UK trade — with which to release a joint statement calling on both the UK and the EU to agree a trade deal as soon as possible.

The statement — sent to chief Brexit negotiators David Davis and Michel Barnier — expresses distress that “big issues” of concern to business have “not yet even been touched on” by negotiators on both sides.

As Adam Marshall added:

“There is a real clamour for the negotiations to start on the practical issues that will affect firms, from regulation and customs, to tariffs and taxes.”

Those firms may have begrudgingly agreed to keep schtum and accept the tortuously slow process so far — for the political goals it sought to achieve — but it is clear they will no longer stand idly by as their interests are threatened.

The pressure will now be felt in Brussels as much as London. The two-phased approach put London on the back foot from the start, but for this second phase to move forward, both sides will need to quickly define their red lines – and if in doing so they neglect or threaten a certain sector, one can expect the response to be firm and very well informed.