Editorial: EU holds all the cards in Brexit talks

Britain's problem is that the EU now holds all the cards. Photo / AP
Britain's problem is that the EU now holds all the cards. Photo / AP

Britain is obviously entering the Brexit negotiations with a weak hand. Why else would its Prime Minister make a scarcely veiled threat that Britain's co-operation in security, intelligence and crime-fighting in Europe depended on the terms of Britain's departure from the European Union. The threat, which Theresa May's ministers have since downplayed, was simply not credible. Britain remains strongly committed to Nato, which is the pillar of Europe's security not the EU.

As for crime-fighting, it is inconceivable Britain would refuse to co-operate with European police, especially on counter-terrorism. Most of May's speech to Parliament as she formally invoked Article 50 of the EU constitution was about the ties that would continue to bind Britain and Europe when Britain leaves. These passages were much more credible than the odd note she struck for the purpose of negotiation.

Some in Britain think it will gain leverage from the EU's larger problems, especially the euro.

But these look more like reasons for the EU to make a clean break.

Britain's problem is that the EU now holds all the cards. Britain has resolved to leave and May has made it clear nothing in the negotiations will change that.

"No deal would be better than a bad deal," she has said. No deal may be the EU's preference, too. It is hard to see why it will not simply accept Britain's decision and say, "Just pay your dues and go."

The amount Britain owes for its remaining two years' membership will be a transitional issue for negotiating, as will be reciprocal arrangements for each other's citizens already living in the other's jurisdiction. But if those are the only issues the EU sees a need to discuss, Britain will be sorely disappointed.

Britain wants to negotiate a bilateral trade deal before it departs. If it cannot, its exports will be subject to same EU tariffs that apply to all countries without a free trade agreement. Britain had the best free trade agreement available in Europe - membership of a market eight times Britain's size without having to accept its common currency and the closer union the euro will need if it is to survive.

Britain's voters, or half of them, have decided that deal was not worth the price of accepting free movement of EU citizens and compliance with some irritating rules they felt impinged on Britain's sovereignty. Now their Government wants to conclude a new trade agreement at the same time as its exit terms are agreed. That looks impossible, even if the EU is interested.

Exit terms involve negotiations with Brussels alone, a trade agreement would need to be ratified by all 27 remaining members. Even the easiest trade agreements take many more years than the two on which the clock is now ticking for Britain's exit. Trade negotiations with multiple countries proceed at the pace of the most reluctant participant on the most contentious of issues. That is why they can take a decade or more to conclude, if they succeed at all.

That is the scale of the damage done by voters last year. It is hard to see these negotiations salvaging very much.

- NZ Herald

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