Acceleration is the mot du jour this week after the Prime Minister made a trip to Brussels on Monday with David Davis for dinner with Jean Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier. This was an attempt to accelerate talks and ensure that the EU agrees to move to the negotiations on the transition arrangements as soon as possible ahead of the European Council meeting which took place at the end of this week.
The Prime Minister reaffirming her commitment to protect EU citizens' rights post-Brexit just ahead of the Council summit also fitted into this wider diplomatic push from the government to speed up the Brexit talks. At last night's opening dinner she asked EU leaders for a deal they could all defend to their people, which many are interpreting as asking them not to push the UK into a no deal scenario with financial demands no British government could accept.
The dinner with Juncker and Barnier did not succeed in ensuring a commitment to immediately move to trade talks, and was not expected to, but there was a written agreement afterwards to "accelerate" the negotiations. In reality this most likely means more frequent negotiating rounds in Brussels.
In Brussels generally the most important breakthroughs tend to happen in informal gatherings where people can speak off the record and really understand the other side’s red lines and areas for movement.
In many ways these negotiations are following the typical path that most EU negotiations tread. Months of initial posturing on both sides and restatement of red lines, followed by more months of negotiations where on the surface nothing much seems to be moving but behind the scenes technical and informal meetings are slowly ironing out potential areas of convergence. Then, as a hard deadline looms, in long meetings lasting into the early hours, everything begins to fall into place and an agreement is reached in the nick of time. In that agreement no one is totally happy, but everyone can live with it.
Despite all the media noise to the contrary, there is nothing to suggest these negotiations are going any differently. The only substantial difference in these negotiations is what is at stake and the fact that if the deadline is missed, the consequences are potentially catastrophic for everyone involved. However that makes it much more likely that some sort of agreement will be found in the very early hours of the morning in a Brussels meeting room next December.
A leaked document from the German Foreign Ministry earlier in the week showed Germany's civil service gearing up preparations for a comprehensive free trade agreement and "at a minimum" agreement on the fields of foreign and security policy, counter-terrorism, criminal justice cooperation, agriculture and fisheries, energy, transport, research and digital issues. Given Angela Merkel is still attempting to form a new four party government in Berlin, which is expected to take some time, this does not represent a formal position with political backing from the Chancellery, but does give an indication of where thinking lies in Berlin and reflects a similar mood in other capitals around Europe. Another similar paper leaked yesterday from the Swedish Foreign Ministry.
There is no appetite for no deal at all, as Angela Merkel made clear in her remarks this morning, but from the European side many feel that once trade negotiations are opened, Brussels will lose its leverage on the budgetary negotiations, which partly explains the reticence from the EU to move quickly past the budget discussions. They are also fearful of splits opening up within the EU27 once talks move on trade, and as the Polish foreign minister commented earlier in the week off-record, all the other countries are united in wanting as much money as possible from UK taxpayers. The German leaks, however, suggest that we are reaching the point where trade will need to be discussed even if the budgetary issues are not fully finalised. Another clear sign of this was Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's coded swipe at the European Commission, stating Ireland and citizens' rights are "quite frankly, more important" than the financial settlement.
So, as widely expected since the summer, the Council did not agree to progress the talks to trade immediately at its conclusion this morning. However, the white smoke from the Berlaymont and various capitals is signalling a likely start of trade and transition talks at the next summit in December, with the Council conclusions green lighting internal EU27 preparations for trade talks.
The EU has however been clear that further concessions will be necessary to get to that stage, and the Prime Minister hinted over dinner last night that there would be more forthcoming on the financial settlement in the coming weeks.
In other news the European Parliament this week also voted on the ETIAS proposals which introduce an ESTA style preauthorisation system for non EU nationals. When the UK leaves the EU it is highly likely (provided the UK does get a deal that allows visa free travel to Europe) that all British visitors to the Schengen zone will have to fill in these forms and pay a fee. The forms have to be filled in online prior to travel and include occupation and educational qualifications and, in some cases, can be rejected. It is in response to the terrorist threat that Europe faces but it is also a reminder that travel to Europe could well become trickier post-Brexit, although the interests of the EU tourism sector in continuing to attract millions of British visitors may play a role here.
The build-up to the summit dominated this week, but from next week expect to see further position papers and an intensification of talks between the EU and the UK as both sides push to progress towards a deal. The summit has signalled the EU is now gearing up for trade talks, an important win for the UK, but not confirmed a start date, so it is clear there is still a lot of work to do in the coming weeks.