The UK has struck a sensible consensus – it’s time for Brussels to move the talks onto trade

The UK has struck a sensible consensus – it’s time for Brussels to move the talks onto trade

Another day, another press conference in Brussels. Or so it’s starting to seem. At yesterday’s meeting, which came at the end of another round of UK-EU talks, the European Commission’s negotiator Michel Barnier described the progress so far as “decisive” and “considerable” – which rather put paid to those who have tried to argue that nothing has been achieved in these rounds of talks. But Barnier also said that the UK had not yet made “sufficient progress” to start talking trade with the EU.

This is important – with the clock ticking on the Article 50 process, both sides need to get on to the substance of the discussion. The EU has artificially separated the talks into two separate phases. From one side of the mouth they say that time is running out. From the other they refuse to talk about trade and our future relationship until “sufficient progress” is made on the first section.

What does “sufficient progress” actually mean, asked the BBC’s Ben Wright at the press conference. In response, Mr Barnier sort of waffled on about how it was the UK’s decision to leave. Well, yes, of course. The point is though that the UK is exercising a right to leave for which the EU treaties themselves specifically allow. And nowhere does it say that “sufficient progress” has to be made on, say, money before the future can be discussed.

The judgement about whether sufficient progress has been made will be given by the assembled leaders of EU member states, at a meeting of the European Council in October. A Council official has already admitted it’s a “political” decision as to whether they green-light trade talks or not. It’s possible that the collective heads of governments and states might ignore what Mr Barnier says and overrule him. But at this point I think that’s relatively unlikely.

The Council will also hear from the European Parliament, whose President, Antonio Tajani, has already said the UK has not yet made sufficient progress to talk trade. Mr Tajani decided this without even bothering to wait for the current round of talks to finish, or to hear what is decided at the next round.

The biggest sticking point is money. There’s some irony here. Many at home and on the continent complained about the level of focus during the referendum on the size of the UK’s financial contribution to the EU. They said our contributions were not the central question and we should debate the broader economic benefits, our trade ties, and so on. Yet talks are now stuck on precisely that issue: how much money will the UK ‘send’ Brussels.

In an even greater irony, some in Brussels have tried to tot up our ‘Brexit bill’ on the basis of the UK’s gross contributions, excluding our receipts. Arguments about £350 million a week all over again?

Jacob Rees-Mogg has sagely highlighted the absurdity of the argument that the UK must settle money first. He asks whether the EU would insist on agreeing and paying its debts to us before anything else, if the UK was one of the biggest net recipients of EU funds, rather than the one of the biggest net contributors. I think we can all answer that.

In an interview yesterday, Sky’s Adam Boulton asked the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney whether the EU’s position was to squeeze every last cent out of Britain. Coveney of course denied it. But I have heard the Polish Foreign Minister say precisely that. He told me at a conference in Warsaw that the EU27 all agreed on one thing: that the UK should pay as much as possible, for as long as possible.

In some senses it was always going to be the case that the money would be one of the biggest issues. And perhaps we should be grateful that it gives us a strong card on our side of the table. Ultimately, we may well end up writing a pretty big cheque. That’s not the biggest issue. Many of those who voted Leave (or indeed Remain) might resent the idea of paying any sort of exit bill, but equally they should be able to see that if we had remained members we would have faced annual contributions in perpetuity. And given the Government’s insistence that nothing is agreed unless everything is agreed, it wouldn’t make sense to send any sort of cheque unless the UK was confident that it had got a good outcome from the overall negotiations on trade and other issues.

There is a way through on the money. At Florence the Prime Minister said that the UK will settle our obligations. Inevitably, there will be wrangling about how much those are but, broadly, it’s only fair that we should honour the commitments we made in good faith, even if some of us may not think those commitments ought to have been made in the first place. Then there’s a separate chunk of money for the current budgetary period. The EU want us to pay up to the end of this period in 2020, whereas under Article 50 we would be out before that.

Helpfully, the fact that the Government is now proposing a transition, provides a solution. We can ‘pay to play’ for the transition period. Again in her Florence speech, the Prime Minister made this clear, with a formulation which committed that no country would have to pay more or receive less during the current budget period. The UK has struck a sensible consensus on these issues. Now it’s time for Brussels to move talks to the next stage. Let’s get on with talking trade and making plans for our future.