With the triggering of Article 50 imminent diplomats have offered a mixed response to Prime Minster Theresa May’s 12-point Brexit Plan, underlining how difficult it will be to get consensus among the 27 member states.
“It’s going to be tough to get an agreement,” predicted one UK-friendly Ambassador.
His views echoed those of Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ex Ambassador to the EU, who warned in an EU Scrutiny Select Committee hearing, that talks would be on a “humongous scale” and that a comprehensive trade deal may only be concluded in the mid 2020s.
Sir Ivan told MPs that once Article 50 was triggered, the 27 remaining EU states would spend “an awful lot of time debating with each other” on a common position before negotiating with the UK, and this could get acrimonious, he warned.
Diplomats welcomed the clarity about Britain’s position over leaving the Single Market, but added that this was “not surprising” since Prime Minister May had little choice if she wanted to prioritise control of Britain’s borders or the ability to enter into bilateral trade agreements with non-EU countries.
US President Donald Trump has indicated he is ready to strike a trade deal, but a seasoned trade negotiator from a non-EU mission warned that this was a high-risk strategy.
“Britain would be in a vulnerable position and I don’t think President Trump will be doing a deal out of charity,” he cautioned.
Prime Minister May’s threat to walk away from a “bad deal” irked some. “The speech started well and then it turned negative with the threats,” said one EU head of mission.
A fall-back to WTO rules has alarmed non-EU countries that have negotiated access to the EU Single Market, in which Britain currently is one of their largest trading partners.
“If tariffs were imposed on our agricultural exports that would be very bad for us,” an African commercial attaché told Embassy.
These concerns are likely to feature on the agenda of the upcoming Commonwealth Trade Ministers Meeting in March where discussions are to focus on how to facilitate intra-Commonwealth trade.
But some EU Ambassadors struck a conciliatory tone, keen to dampen down talk of a so-called punishment deal. “We want to keep as close as possible to Britain after it leaves the EU…Punshiment is not the way we work with friends and allies,” the Ambassador of Latvia Baiba Braze said in an interview with the BBC.
Meanwhile Prime Minister May’s intent to withdraw from the Customs Union may have an impact on the border with Ireland.
Speaking to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall said he would be “sensitising” EU partners to ensure that the “special circumstances” of Ireland are accommodated.
While acknowledging that there would be “some customs regime” he said Ireland would argue the regime on the Border should be less intrusive than any customs arrangement between Britain and the rest of the EU.
He also told Embassy at a diplomatic reception he would be working to retain the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland. “The real issue is not about restricting freedom of movement, it is restricting access to jobs. EU migrants won’t come via Ireland to enter the UK illegally to work – they will travel visa-free to the UK.”