The UK’s second round of Brexit talks with the EU will begin on Monday, and Michel Barnier reminded us today that “the clock is ticking.” Yesterday, in his usual arrogant manner, Boris Johnson said to EU leaders to “go whistle” if they expect the UK to pay an “extortionate” divorce bill, but “no plan for no deal,” is not exactly a promising alternative when, and if, everything else fails. 

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, the EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, said that “I am not hearing any whistling, just a clock ticking.” Barnier didn’t appreciate Boris Johnson’s remark and emphasised that the divorce bill and the fate of EU citizens were significant issues that needed to be resolved as soon as possible. The problem is that the UK hasn’t revealed its position yet and Barnier said that the moment he gets clarification on the UK’s position, preferably before the second round of the negotiations, he is willing to work on the weekend and on 14 July, which is a national holiday in France.

The EU is becoming more and more impatient with the UK and with attitudes such as Boris Johnson’s haughty antics, that seem to entertain a teenager from Eton than a French pragmatist and mountain man. In 1992, Barnier said how proud he was to be “a man of the mountains,” because he was born at La Tronche in Isère, in the region of Rhône-Alpes. Mocked by his more cosmopolitan and highly educated colleagues, Barnier was called “le cretin des Alpes,” but now he is venerated as the best man for Brexit, characterised by his skilful qualities as a politician and his determination

Trust

Barnier stressed that negotiations depended on mutual trust and that kind of relationship needed to be developed so that other technicalities could be tackled: “How do you build a relationship based on trade, security … which is going to last, with a country with which you don’t have trust? I am saying this from the bottom of my heart, I want us to build that relationship.”

Divorce bill and other priorities

In the absence of a clear and formal UK position on Brexit, the conversation is back on the €100bn bill that Britain has to pay if it wants to settle its financial obligations to the EU. Unless they recognise the UK’s financial commitments to the EU, British politicians won’t be able to proceed with the discussions on the future relationship with the EU. Barnier admitted that he didn’t “want to push anybody over the edge, but we have to find clear and sustainable solutions.”

The credit ratings agency Moody’s warned that Britain is doomed to experience slow growth if it fails to secure a good Brexit deal on trade. While David Davis, the UK’s chief negotiator, wanted to start the negotiations with talks on future trade, he had to immediately compromise in the first round of the talks and follow the EU’s schedule and priorities. For the EU, only when sufficient progress has been made on the three “indivisible and intertwined” priorities regarding citizens’ rights, the UK’s financial bill and avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, will the discussions proceed.

The exit bill, however, is not a “ransom,” or a “punishment,” Barnier said. He explained: “It’s not an exit bill, it’s not a punishment, it’s not a revenge, it’s simply settling accounts. It’s not easy and it might be expensive, but we are not asking for a single pound or euro more than they have legally agreed to provide. You can discuss this or that budget line, but they have to start by recognising that they have entered into commitments.”

Barnier meets with British politicians

On Thursday, Barnier will hold separate and private meetings with first minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Wales Carwyn Jones and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Brussels to discuss their approach to Brexit. It is important for him to hear the opinions of other British officials, however, Barnier will, of course, only negotiate with the UK government and not with other UK politicians. 

For Corbyn, Labour is willing to pay only “what we are legally required to pay.” Corbyn said that, “We have to negotiate intelligently and sensibly, but above all negotiate with respect and expect to be respected in return.” 

Corbyn, who has been oscillating between Remain and Leave options, is now facing pressure to examine the possibility of staying in the EU. Manuel Cortes, the general secretary of the TSSA union who has helped fund Labour and Momentum, called for Corbyn to not settle for an EEA or EFTA membership and allow the EU to “make all the rules for us because we gave up our EU seat and ability to shape things.” He proposed: “The best Brexit option to put on the table is one which says we stay put. I hope our party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, will be holding out that olive branch when he meets the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, this week. Anything lesser is to cede to a deal meaning Britain will be agreeing to taxation without representation. What serious tribune of the people can advocate that?”

But, the government has other plans. Damian Green, Theresa May’s deputy, said today, during the Prime Minister’s questions, that they could leave the negotiations without a deal, if such a deal is damning. He said: “We are saying that it is conceivable that we would be offered a punishment deal that would be worse than no deal. It is not our intention – we want to have a deal, we want to have a good deal.” But, in a government where the chancellor is asking for transitional arrangements, the foreign secretary is dreaming of cakes and eating them and the Brexit secretary seems to be insinuating than no other sane country would ever follow the UK’s route, anything is possible. The promise of returning to a quaint Britain, that never was, still appears like a crazy idea, only now it has a big fat price tag.