By Conor Holohan
The last time there was a bilateral dinner between Prime Minister Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission declared to German press that he had left ‘ten times more sceptical than before’. The pair had profound disagreements about how quickly the rights of EU citizens could be guaranteed, and particularly about a ‘divorce payment’. Junker insisted that Britain was not leaving a ‘golf club’ and that Downing Street needed a ‘wake-up call’. Juncker’s behaviour in the press following the dinner was met with fury from eurosceptics, with UKIP MEP Nigel Farage saying the President had been ‘bloody rude’ and had acted like a ‘bully’.
This time, ahead of a meeting of EU member states to discuss the amount of progress made on the Brexit process, Juncker and May’s dinner was served with a side of urgency rather than bitterness. A joint statement insisted that the talks had been ‘constructive and friendly’ and that there was an agreement to accelerate talks.
However, only a few days previously the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said that the talks were in deadlock, little has really changed. The fact still remains that the EU demand – and the UK have agreed – that citizens’ rights, the Northern Irish border and the ‘divorce’ payment all have to be settled before talks on a trade deal are allowed to begin. May’s Florence speech, like this dinner, was seen as conciliatory and productive, however it is inescapable that the real talking happens over the negotiating table, not in media set plays. There is no level of rhetoric that will get the EU’s minds off the black hole Great Britain is leaving in its finances, and if there were, Theresa May does not posses it.
The very most important part of the Article 50 negotiations are undoubtedly the trade arrangements. May knows that the European Union is losing one of its largest financial contributors and will be seeking to extract as much money as possible before departure, not only to make up any shortfall, but also to signal to other EU nations that leaving is not easy or cheap. So, taking this into account, is there something significant about the fact that our government has just began preparing for the possibility of a ‘no deal’ situation? Simply, yes.
The disagreement between David Davis and Michel Barnier over the divorce settlement lasted all of Summer and is now deep into the Autumn. The government now finds itself at a crossroads: Either it pays a settlement well above the £20billion figure once banded about, or it walks away from the negotiating table without a trade deal.