EU Replays Its Brexit Playbook, Sensing U.K. Still in Disarray

(Bloomberg) -- When a European Union official, summing up the state of Brexit talks on Thursday, described many of the U.K.’s ideas as “fantasy,” it maintained a strategy of dismissing Britain’s approach that hasn’t changed since the talks began last summer.

After all, this was the same official -- who insists on anonymity when briefing the media -- who in August described the government’s plans for keeping the Irish border invisible as “magical thinking.”

The EU’s negotiators see no reason to change their tactics. They saw what happened in the first phase of the talks before the end of 2017 when, having ridiculed the U.K.’s initial positions on making payments to the bloc, EU court involvement in protecting citizens’ rights, the need to make Northern Ireland a special case and the format of the talks themselves, the U.K. caved in on all of them.

EU officials know they hold many of the cards: they think the U.K. is more desperate to have something to show from Brexit than the bloc is. It suits them to play up disarray in British government thinking and disagreement in Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet, as the official did on Thursday, highlighting issues where the U.K. still “hasn’t got a position” even though October’s deadline is fast approaching.

After attempting to explain to reporters what the U.K.’s position on the Irish border was, the official said: “You’re just as confused as before? So am I.”

The EU does want a deal too, however. The aim of officials in Brussels is to hammer home the message that the EU is an inflexible organization whose rules prohibit many of the post-Brexit links that the U.K. is demanding. The U.K. needs to understand that if there’s going to be an agreement, officials say.

It was a theme picked up by Ivan Rogers, the U.K.’s former ambassador to the EU, in a speech at the University of Glasgow on Wednesday. “Nothing seems to rile U.K. politicians more” than talk of the ‘sovereign autonomy of the EU legal order’ and EU decision-making, he said.

“Do not feign surprise or outrage when this autonomous legal order -- which is not a state, federal or confederal, but a unique supranational construction in nature -- duly operates in precisely the way any expert can tell you it will, and has to.”

It’s for that reason that the official who briefed on Thursday poured cold water on many of the ideas the U.K. has for its future relationship with the EU: membership of the Galileo satellite navigation project, a bespoke agreement on exchange of data, continuing to participate in the EU’s police-cooperation system, wide-ranging U.K. involvement in EU foreign policy decision-making.

Read more: May’s Brexit War Cabinet Said to Remain Stalled on Customs

“The precondition is that the U.K. recognizes the consequences of its own actions, of Brexit,” the official said.

U.K. negotiators were taken aback at the tone of the official’s remarks. To them, it makes little sense for the EU to take make such negative feelings public, even though they know the message is aimed more at their political masters than the diplomats.

Olly Robbins, the U.K.’s chief negotiator who led the talks in Brussels all week, took to Twitter for the first time in almost two years to say he was “proud” of his team of officials. Britain’s proposals were “calmly and professionally” presented, he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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