Brexit talks start today as confusion reigns

Chief negotiator: David Davis, known to his friends as “the old knuckleduster”. © Getty

This morning in Brussels the “divorce talks” begin between the UK and the EU. But does anyone today know what the British people want or does that remain a riddle wrapped in a mystery?

The debate has been dividing the UK for more than 20 years. Almost one year ago the question was finally put to the people: should the UK leave the European Union?

To most people’s surprise 52% of voters said yes. So today, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, will meet the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and begin formal negotiations.

There is much to be discussed. First on the agenda is agreeing on the rights of three million EU citizens currently living in the UK, and vice versa. Then there is the Northern Irish border, and agreeing how much Britain will owe the EU in the “divorce bill”.

The EU has insisted that it is only when these issues have been settled that talks can move on to its future relationship with Britain. Trade deals may not be discussed until October.

There is much doubt in the UK about what this future relationship should look like. In January, Theresa May said that she intended to withdraw the UK from the single market and customs union, and pull out of the European Court of Justice.

But when she called an election to gain support for this vision of a “hard Brexit”, she did not get it.

Instead her party lost its majority, and there have since been calls for a “softer” approach. Yesterday major business leaders said the government should “put the economy first”. In the Mail on Sunday, polls found that 69% of Britons did not want to leave the customs union. The DUP — which the government will now rely on to pass laws — has called for a “sensible” approach.

But so far Theresa May has not signalled any major changes in direction. Yesterday the foreign secretary Boris Johnson argued that Britain will become a “great global trading nation” from outside the customs union.

Meanwhile, the French president Emmanuel Macron has suggested that Brexit does not have to go ahead at all.

The government is seeking a “bright new future for the UK”, said Davis yesterday. But what will that future look like?

Talk it out

“Full steam ahead!” say the Brexiteers. The government has been planning a hard Brexit for months. This is what people voted for in the referendum, and large numbers voted for it again less than two weeks ago in the general election. A hard Brexit means that the UK can determine its own future. Let’s get on with it.

Not so fast, caution others. The talks will be incredibly complex, and if no deal is agreed there will be harsh financial penalties for the UK. There is no appetite for that in Parliament or among ordinary people. This will become obvious once talks have begun. Britain must then drop its hard Brexit fantasy and come up with a more realistic approach. Or, better yet, decide not to go ahead at all.

You Decide

  1. Should the UK aim for a hard or soft Brexit in its negotiations with the EU? Or none at all?
  2. What is the most important part of the Brexit talks for you: the economy, borders, citizens’ rights, or something else?

Activities

  1. Split into pairs. One of you is now negotiating Brexit on behalf of the UK, the other the EU. Spend ten minutes discussing the major issues, and then write down three principles that you have agreed on.
  2. Create a timeline on the history of the EU since 1945, ending with today. Then create a separate timeline which looks five years into the future. What do you think will happen next?

Some People Say...

“No deal is better than a bad deal.”

Theresa May

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Talks are due to begin at 11am today. There will then be a “working lunch” between the two chief negotiators and a press conference at 6:30pm. Both the UK and the EU have said that one of their first priorities will be securing the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, as long as an equal deal is made for UK citizens in the EU. Today is the only day of talks scheduled this week.
What do we not know?
Anything about the outcome of the talks. We do not know how much each side is willing to sacrifice, whether they will change their minds, or how long it will take. It is also likely that we do not know just how much we do not know; the EU and UK have been partners for over 40 years. Their laws and finances are very closely linked. Untangling them will be a lengthy process.

Word Watch

Divorce bill
This could be tricky; some in the EU believe this should be €100 billion, but Davis has insisted that the UK will not pay such a high figure.
Single market
An economic area in Europe which allows goods, labour, services and capital to move freely between its members. That means that a company based in the UK can trade as easily with a company in France as a company just down the road.
Customs union
Another economic area. If goods enter one country and pay the necessary tarrifs, they can then move freely between the other members of the customs union. They all have the same rules for trade. This means that members cannot make separate trade deals with other countries.
European Court of Justice
A court which interprets and enforces EU laws. Its decisions trump those of national courts.
Business leaders
Leaders of five business groups signed a letter to the business secretary yesterday.
69%
According to Survation, which correctly predicted the general election result.
DUP
A Northern Irish party with ten MPs in Parliament, helping the Conservatives to achieve a majority.

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