Britain’s faltering Brexit strategy fails to inspire confidence

By Anna Myers

“I’m beginning to feel a worrying sense of Groundhog Day every time the Prime Minister gives us an update on the progress of the negotiations” joked Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps he is right: what is there left to do but laugh at the state of Brexit?

After five rounds of talks, there has been no breakthrough and most senior civil servants still oppose it. Theresa May said she “recognised the difficulty of the process”. But this recognition will not speed up the talks. The closest we have come to good news is that Angela Merkel ‘hopes’ that Brexit talks will move on to the topic of trade deals. But the EU Council has refused to do this until there has been sufficient progress in discussions on the Irish border, the rights of EU citizens and the divorce bill.

It is the divorce bill that has proved the greatest hurdle. Despite the demands of the Council, the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, has refused to give a figure for a financial settlement with the EU until a final Brexit deal has been reached. Mrs May had suggested an offer of £20bn. However, the President of the European Parliament was not wildly impressed with her suggestion, denouncing it as “peanuts.” When asked for his thoughts on the matter, Donald Tusk simply responded: “I have never seen 20 billion peanuts.” Such is the progress of the negotiations.

Business leaders at home are equally frustrated at the pace of the talks. In a joint letter to Brexit Secretary David Davis, the leaders of the five largest business lobby groups expressed their growing anxiety at the lack of a transition deal. There was little mincing of words: the Director of the Confederation of British Industry urged them to “get on with it”. A Deputy Governor of the Bank of England warned that city firms would activate contingency plans if there was no transition arrangement in place by Christmas. In a thinly-veiled dig, the boss of Goldman Sachs tweeted: “Just left Frankfurt. Great meetings, great weather, really enjoyed it. Good, because I’ll be spending a lot more time there.”

Brexit is a challenge that Mrs May has failed to rise to. When the biggest names in business and finance openly criticize her strategy, it becomes difficult to trust her to manage the negotiations. She stands weakened on every side – a leader without even the confidence of her own party. This provides a stark contrast to the unity of the EU member states. In a speech last week, Donald Tusk reminded them of the sacrifices they had made in concessions to David Cameron, and urged them to stand together: “Now, no one can divide the 27”.

Photograph: Ministerie van Buitentandse Zaken via Flickr

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