Monday, 12 December 2016

Is Europe United?

Guy Verhofstadt has declared that, while he welcomes Theresa May's end-of-March timeline for Article 50, “there can be no pre-negotiations. Negotiations can only start after the trigger of article 50.”

The negotiation, of course, has already begun, with each side attempting to anchor the other with speeches, leaks and private briefings to the press. The "Four Freedoms", he mentioned for example, are not a law of nature but an aspiration and one which isn't even strictly applied. But they are an excellent anchor.

The EU institutions have stuck together well so far, although it is still very early in the process. We don't know what "back channels" to various European leaders have been, or are being, developed but it would be surprising if they were not already largely in place.

The three lead negotiators - Michel Barnier (Commission), Guy Verhofstadt (Parliament) and Didier Seeuws (Council) - as well as Junker, Tusk and Merkel - all seem somewhat on message but there are noises that things may not stay that way for long. The leaders of the 27 EU states are far more concerned about practical issues (and the votes they entail) than the federalist ambitions that the Commission prioritises.

Let us not forget the Visegrád Four (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) who seem to be pooling their influence as a block. Their stance is all the more significant as, even by Qualified Majority Voting, the UK will likely need to win over either Poland or Spain in addition to the usual big states (and with Spain there is the issue of Gibraltar to deal with).

All of this could give the UK some leverage in the negotiations, but equally it could make it impossible to get the necessary approvals for any deal.

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