Brexit Bulletin: Is Britain’s Brexit Strategy ‘Screwed’?

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The European Union is thinking ahead: the bloc has started internal preparations in case the wheels come off the Brexit talks over the next seven weeks and don’t advance to trade talks at a crucial summit in December. 

Wednesday’s behind-closed-doors meeting in Brussels took place while Parliament in London heard a very public account of exactly when Britain lost its leverage and started to get “screwed” by its allies, from Ivan Rogers, the man who quit Theresa May’s negotiating team with a warning about a “muddled” Brexit strategy.

EU diplomats met without British officials and started thinking about two possible scenarios: either talks go well enough over the next two months and the EU gives Theresa May the “sufficient progress” judgment she craves; or negotiations continue to stall and the year ends with continued deadlock. The EU wants to have a response to both in its pocket, as Tim Ross, Nikos Chrysoloras and I report today.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t yet about full contingency planning, and a failure to move onto transition and trade at the December gathering wouldn’t represent a total collapse. But it would require both sides to start reassessing where they’re heading.

The whole Brexit timetable was drafted on the understanding that enough progress on the separation issues – the financial settlement, the protection of citizens’ rights and the Irish border – would be made by the end of the year. Negotiators would then have time to seal a transition arrangement and discuss the future relationship before Brexit happens. The Guardian reports today that the transition may be limited to 20 months, rather than the full two years envisaged by May’s government.

Speaking of the timetable, it’s unarguable that it’s the European side, not the U.K., that’s setting the rules. Could it ever have been any different?

Yes, if you believe Ivan Rogers, the U.K.’s former envoy to the EU. Had he not fallen out with May, Rogers would have been one of Britain’s main negotiators. (As it is, he quit the civil service in January and is now at home in Dorset writing a book.)

Brexit Bulletin: Is Britain’s Brexit Strategy ‘Screwed’?

In London yesterday he told Parliament’s Treasury Committee that the triggering of Article 50 in March this year was the moment when the U.K. lost its negotiating power. If May had delayed and talked to her fellow leaders first about what she expected out of Brexit, Rogers said, things would have been easier.

It was “a moment of key leverage,” and if May had waited she could have avoided the U.K. “being screwed in negotiations,” Rogers said. The EU27 now “dictate the rules of the game.”

Rogers is known as something of an Eeyore character in Brussels, and his fondness for spelling out the most pessimistic scenarios didn’t go down well with the government. He didn’t disappoint yesterday, talking of a “bloody” and bad-tempered “trade war” if talks collapse, and describing the idea of a free-trade deal with the EU much better than Canada’s as “fantasy land.”

Brexit Latest

New Role | Theresa May wants to appoint Matthew Elliott, the former head of the official Brexit referendum campaign, to a senior job at Conservative campaign headquarters in a bid to reassure Leave-supporting lawmakers and activists, the Times reports.

Changing Sides | Meanwhile, corporate Britain is building bridges to the opposition Labour party, Svenja O’Donnell and David Hellier write. Leader Jeremy Corbyn was invited to be a featured speaker at the annual Confederation for British Industry conference next month. Labour says approaches from business leaders or their lobbyists have soared since June’s election.

Driving Down | Car production in the U.K. fell 4.1 percent in September, the fifth monthly drop this year. “Brexit is the greatest challenge of our times, and yet we still don’t have any clarity on what our future relationship with our biggest trading partner will look like,” Mike Hawes, chief executive of the U.K. Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said.

Call for Clarity | Carmaker Ford also said it wants more certainty from government on the Brexit transition period by the end of the year. Steven Armstrong, who heads Ford in Europe, Middle East and Africa, said in Germany that the company is experiencing U.K. headwinds of about £600 million annually as a result of the decision to leave the EU.

Costs to Come | GlaxoSmithKline Plc said the new need for testing facilities in EU countries to meet post-Brexit trade requirements will add to the company’s financial burden. Chief Executive Officer Emma Walmsley expects the U.K.’s withdrawal to add to the company’s costs, starting later this year. Britain needs to be able to “participate in the EU regulatory framework to the fullest extent possible,” she said.

Welsh Split | Deep divisions still exist in Wales between Remain and Leave voters and no consensus is emerging among the public on the Brexit process, according to a study by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre.

And Finally...

The Sun is calling it “Operation Gran,” and it’s coming to an older person near you.

A campaign to try to reverse Brexit wants to persuade young people opposed to Britain’s withdrawal to appeal to their grandparents – the generation that was most likely to vote Leave – to ask them to back a second referendum and to reverse their vote. The idea is similar to the “Ring Your Granny” strategy credited with building support for same-sex marriage in Ireland in 2015, the newspaper says.

The campaign has the backing of Labour peer Lord Adonis, the Sun says, and will be fronted by writer Madeleine Kay. She was thrown out of a Brussels news conference with Brexit Secretary David Davis and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier last week while wearing a super-girl costume.

Brexit Bulletin: Is Britain’s Brexit Strategy ‘Screwed’?

Emma Ross-Thomas is away.

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To contact the author of this story: Ian Wishart in Brussels at

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