Mutual understanding key to smoothing Brexit talks

Both parties must avoid missteps that could poison negotiations between Britain and the EU and lead to great disruption

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 4:06am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 4:06am

There is perhaps no more difficult a decision than divorce. Britain has embarked on such a process in leaving the European Union, the two-year exit process having been formally triggered with the handing over of a letter to EU Council president Donald Tusk. British Prime Minister Theresa May put on a brave face in making the announcement to parliament, setting forth goals and ambitions. But the response from Brussels was sombre, making clear that the break-up, as is so often the case when a marriage ends, is unlikely to be smooth.

Ideally, both sides would be able to separate with the best possible benefits for all of their populations. China has invested so much in the union continuing, with Britain to act as a facilitator on free trade deals and the internationalisation of the yuan, and would like relations to remain amicable during negotiations and after the split. But the uncertainties sparked nine months ago when British voters opted to leave will largely remain until a final agreement has been forged. The process is scheduled to take two years, but complications mean more time may be needed and even then, there is a chance that there will be no deal.

Brexit countdown: how Britain’s divorce from Europe could play out

What type of trade deal Britain secures after it leaves the EU, and the status of EU nationals in the UK and Britons living in Europe are especially difficult issues. An early sign of the potential pitfalls came when May suggested Britain’s role as a major contributor to Europe’s defences could be used as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations. In her letter to Tusk, she said failure to reach a trade deal within the time limit could “weaken” cooperation in fighting terrorism and crime. Studies meanwhile have shown that leaving the single market could lead to between 22 and 30 per cent less British goods being traded with the EU. The linking of the two issues understandably caused anger in Brussels.

May’s thinking sits well with Britons, but not EU politicians. They are grappling with a flood of refugees from wars being fought in Europe’s backyard and with the rise of far-right nationalists eager for their countries to shut the migration doors and follow Britain’s lead. While the Netherlands avoided such a course in recent elections, France could well take that path should Marine le Pen claim victory in presidential polls next month, while two of the leading parties in opinion polls in Italy are anti-EU.

The British prime minister’s misstep over security shows that while she knows what pleases her domestic audience, she lacks understanding when it comes to those she will be negotiating with. Only by both sides having a firm grasp of needs and expectations is there a chance of the marriage being dissolved with minimal upset.