British negotiators have capitulated to key European demands for a phased approach to Brexit talks, agreeing to park discussions on free trade until they have thrashed out the cost of the multibillion-euro UK divorce settlement.
Putting a brave face on a concession that may further strengthen the tactical dominance of the EU, the Brexit secretary David Davis insisted his initial retreat remained consistent with long-term government strategy. “It’s not how it starts, it’s how it finishes that matters,” Davis said in Brussels after the first day of formal talks. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
Previously, Davis had threatened to turn the issue into the “row of the summer” in a bid to avoid being held to ransom over the divorce settlement. He had hoped for talks on trade to run in parallel with divorce discussions.
But a politically weakened UK team appeared eager to show signs of progress on Monday even if it meant accepting priorities set by their counterparts.
The chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, made clear he believed Britain was in no position to dictate the timing of the negotiations. “The UK has asked to leave the EU, not the other way around, so we each have to assume the consequences of our decisions and the consequences are substantial,” he replied, when asked if the EU was making any concessions of its own. “Please do not underestimate those consequences.
“We need to remain calm,” added the former French diplomat. “We are talking about orderly withdrawal first and that makes sense. It’s not something we are asking for in order to get concessions, it’s just a direct consequence of the UK decision.
“I am not in a frame of mind to make concessions or ask for concessions,” he said. “We are looking to unravel 43 years of patiently built relations.”
The bruising exchange took place as the UK also announced that Theresa May would be making a trip to Brussels on Thursday to unveil the terms of a new British offer to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain. The full terms of what Whitehall sources describe as a “generous” offer will be published next Monday, but some in the EU worry they still will not go far enough.