What really happened at that Downing Street dinner?

What really happened at that Downing Street dinner?

by Miles Saltiel
article from Wednesday 3, May, 2017

LAST WEEK I found myself amid a company of academics, civil servants, financiers, industrialists, journalists, lawyers, ministers, parliamentarians and other political grandees, as well as think-tankers and trade negotiators. Running a rule over what was said and what was not, I am now sufficiently confident of my handle on the UK position to set it out below. 

This is as though said by Theresa May to the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the EU's lead Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, over their dinner with her and David Davis at Downing Street on the evening of Wednesday 26 April. In the nature of things the details of language are conjectural. But I’d be happy to take the first four paragraphs to the bank; as to the last three, I’d be more like 90% confident. 

"We’ve agreed that the four of us face testing challenges in mounting these talks. Nick - who sends his regrets for being unable to make it tonight - likes to say that we should “derisk the process”. Part of this is public tone, where we’re doing our bit. Earlier today David promised not to engineer splits among your members. I’m going easy on “no deal is better than a bad deal”, though between ourselves we know this must be so. And I will see that Liam continues to be tactful about his dealings with the WTO and third countries, although everyone realises that he has to work with them - not merely to prepare for an orderly departure but in case things go wrong. 

We also understand that there will be times when harsh things are said for public consumption, for example in a few days when you are back in Brussels. Our parliamentarians are not always as thoughtful as the four of us might wish. Indeed my own politics - including (twinkle in eye) electoral politics - give rise to occasions best addressed by letting Boris be Boris. Nonetheless, we don’t intend to let such squalls blow us off course.

We’re agreed that our joint objective is a comprehensive and orderly process. Comprehensive means no UK involvement in the single market or the customs union; no permanent contributions to or jurisdiction by EU bodies; and a prompt and full free trade agreement. On this score, many thanks, Jean-Claude, for your kind gift of the text of your agreement with Canada. To be honest, my previous study of it leaves me unsure how it applies, as the UK and the EU are already in full regulatory accord. What matters is what happens next. Orderly means time to adjust, including reorganising our port formalities, which - between the four of us - are currently looking a bit ropey, with interim arrangements for adjudication, contribution and such like expiring in March 2021.

I understand that your guidelines call for you to deal with “the past” before you address “the future”. None of us wants to make ordinary people hostages. Speaking personally, I regret that so much has been made of a terminal payment. Even so, I promise not to make a fuss if everything is rolled up into what Philip tells me is our average contribution of 0.14% of GDP per year, over our forty-four years with you. You now appreciate that continuing ECJ jurisdiction won’t work for us: you’ll be amused by Jonathan’s joke - you do know our brilliant Supreme Court Justice? - that this is the sort of thing which led to the Hundred Years’ War! So we’ll follow your agreement with Canada, Jean-Claude, and its independent tribunals or arbitration. This also explains why I’m about to recommit to taking the UK out of the ECHR. Generally, however, we won’t be sticky on interim arrangements provided we have a “good agreement” in prospect. Naturally we accept your assurances that this is your intention too.

On the other hand, we need to be mindful that things may go awry. No-one wants a cliff-edge. This means that quite soon, all four of us need to reassure ourselves that the “good deal” we all want is really on the cards. This means no working-level procrastination and a sensible approach to money and adjudication. Otherwise, Nick’s “derisking” means that we’ll need to call it quits so that my government may turn to whatever it takes at home and overseas to minimise disruption for a departure without an agreement. 

Fiona - who also apologises for her absence- has taken soundings on this. She tells me that eighteen months will be a tough timetable and that anything less is too short. This means that at the end of September, I will take a recommendation to my Cabinet as to whether we should carry on talking. By then it should be clear: we will have had several rounds and I will have consulted with the French President and the German Chancellor after their elections. I know this is a taxing timetable but let me not mislead you: I owe it to my country to be sure that our talks promise a fruitful outcome before I can responsibly ask my colleagues to commit after October. 

As to our own election, I’ve explained that I wanted to demonstrate my commitment to our talks with a mandate sufficient to take Parliament with me if things go to plan. This is what we all want. But by the same token, I will not flinch from my duty to lead if it becomes clear that satisfactory negotiations are no longer realistic. Let us hope it never comes to that. So (raising a flute of Nyetimber) let us make a toast, Gentlemen: to constructive talks and a good agreement!"

However much the principals wish for successful negotiations, the two sides are bedevilled by the timetable. The snap election shows May doing all she can to create wiggle room after Article 50 notice expires. But the pinch point at the end of September is inescapable. The EU can’t be certain of its red lines till the German elections on the twenty-fourth. But if the UK is to stay in the room, May needs the certainty of a good outcome at pretty much the same time. This couldn’t be tighter. I’m still calling a breakdown as more or less 50-50.

You can read more from Miles Saltiel at his Blog http://www.brexit2016.uk/

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