The U.K.'s Tentative Roadmap Out of Europe

A series of proposals from the British government aim to demonstrate its preparedness to leave the EU. But they may have proven the opposite.

U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis and EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier
David Davis, the U.K. Brexit Secretary, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator, hold a joint press conference concluding the second round of Brexit talks in Brussels, Belgium on July 20, 2017.  (Francois Lenoir / Reuters )

Since European Union and United Kingdom representatives reconvened in Brussels last month for Brexit talks, the British negotiating team has faced accusations of being unprepared—an impression that was only fueled by this photo:

The perception hangs over a critical moment in Brexit negotiations, in which both sides are expected to be hammering out a deal that will outline the terms of unresolved issues such as the rights of EU citizens in Britain (and vice versa), the U.K.’s financial obligations to the EUknown commonly as the “divorce bill”—and the fate of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Both sides have set a deadline for all three issues to be addressed by October, though so far no agreements have been reached.

But the U.K. aims to shake this perception by revealing exactly where it stands on on all three issues, as well as others. Last week, the British government began publishing a series of what’s projected to be at least a dozen position papers detailing its desired path out of the EU. The first paper proposes a transitional agreement that would allow the U.K. to retain some of the benefits of being part of the EU customs union, through which members enjoy free trade without barriers, such as tariffs, without actually being a member of the bloc; the second, which addresses the issue of the land border between the Republic of Ireland (a member of the EU) and Northern Ireland (a member of the U.K.), reaffirms the British government’s opposition to reimposing customs checks and passport controls between the two countries. This week, the British government published several more position papers outlining its positions on a host of other issues, from the regulation of consumer goods to cross-border civil judicial cooperation.

Though the British government’s position papers do reveal some of what the U.K. would like to see happen after it leaves the bloc, they don’t spell out exactly how those aspirations would be achieved. In its first proposal, which focuses on Britain leaving the EU’s customs union, the U.K. said it would seek to maintain “close association” with the union for an interim period while both sides negotiate a more long-term agreement, for which the U.K. offers two proposals: The first, dubbed a “highly streamlined customs arrangement,” calls for easing the imposition of a new customs border with technology-based solutions; the second, called “a new customs partnership with the EU,” aims to avoid a customs border altogether through “an innovative and untested approach.” The U.K. doesn’t offer much specificity for either approach, nor does it say which one it would prefer.

The second position paper is no clearer. Though it reiterates the U.K.’s opposition to imposing “any physical border infrastructure” between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and reaffirms its willingness to maintain the Common Travel Area, through which British and Irish citizens travel freely between their countries, and the Good Friday Agreement, it doesn’t offer much clarity on how such checks could be avoided, as EU law requires the implementation of some sort of customs control on the Republic’s side.

The lack of specificity may not be unintentional. “The U.K. is actually leaving quite a lot of flexibility in its position papers—it wants to leave itself room to negotiate,” Alex Greer, a research and communications officer at Open Europe, an independent think tank, told me. “If you tell people exactly what you want, it either equals progress or it equals leverage. The negotiation teams on either side are not deaf to that awareness.”

The EU has been adamant about the talks’ timeline, and what it’s willing to discuss and when. Though the European Commission welcomed the position papers last week as a “a positive step” for negotiations, EU leaders were quick to stress that they wouldn’t allow the U.K. to leapfrog over withdrawal issues to negotiate trade. Michel Barnier, the chief Brexit negotiator for the European Commission, tweeted: “The quicker #UK & EU27 agree on citizens, settling accounts and #Ireland, the quicker we can discuss customs & future relationship.” Guy Verhofstadt, his European Parliament counterpart, called the U.K. customs proposal “a fantasy,” echoing that citizens’ rights and a financial settlement would have to come first.

But the U.K. isn’t convinced that’s true, and has argued that certain withdrawal issues are inherently tied to the U.K. and EU’s future relationship. “The British government has been arguing since the start of the negotiations that the EU’s insistence on finishing Article 50”—the statute of the Lisbon Treaty governing the procedure for withdrawing from the EU—“before embarking on talks about the trade deal made no sense because the Irish question depended on what the trade question was,” Professor Anand Menon, the director of U.K. in a Changing Europe, an independent research institute, told me. “Ultimately, unless we agree to some sort of customs union issue, it’s very hard to know what to do about borders.”

Greer said part of the problem with the EU’s sequencing is that it doesn’t allow for either side to discuss what a future U.K.-EU relationship might look like. “The EU has been pretty detailed and specific in what it wants in the narrow scope of the withdrawal agreement … but it’s an obligation in Article 50 to consider what the future relationship is going to look like, which is where I would argue the EU has some ground to cover,” he said, adding: “If you stick rigidly to that sequencing formula it’s going to be very, very hard to make those deals work and to reach an agreement that’s satisfactory for both parties.”

The EU’s desire to address key withdrawal issues first is not totally unwarranted. Nearly 4.7 million people and their ability to continue living, working, and studying in their current countries will be affected by the debate over citizens’ rights; the issue of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland affects vital industries in both countries and the continuation of the Good Friday Agreement that helped achieved peace between them.

But part of the EU’s insistence on prioritizing withdrawal issues also has to do with its desire to attain a firm commitment from the U.K. on its financial obligations to the bloc—a divorce bill economists estimate could cost the country anywhere between 20 billion and 100 billion euros. U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis has declined to commit to a specific figure yet, citing the need for “constructive ambiguity.”

But John Springford, the director of research at the London-based Centre for European Reform, told me Britain’s silence on the divorce bill issue has more to do with its unpopularity at home than negotiating tactics. “The British public and [those to] the right of the Conservative party do not want to pay billions of billions of pounds to the EU,” he said, adding: “The more specific the number, the more difficult the political hit that Theresa May and her government will take.” Indeed, a recent study by the London School of Economics and Oxford University found that neither those who voted to remain in the EU nor those who voted to leave are in favor of paying more than 10 to 20 billion euros.

While the U.K.’s Brexit position papers reveal a great deal, it’s unclear if they're comprehensive enough to move talks forward when negotiators reconvene Monday in Brussels. “I’m hard pressed to come to any other conclusion than to think the British government was spooked by the amount of commentary there has been in the last couple of weeks saying, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing,’” Menon said. “A lot of this is basically declaratory and aspirational.”

Greer, however, said the onus is on both sides to offer more clarity on their respective positions. “The truth is that the EU needs the U.K. and the U.K. needs the EU for different things and in different ways,” he said. “Each side must decide whether short-term tactical gain is worth longer-term strategic pain when it comes to the success of their ongoing relationship.”