A thread by Simon Usherwood on how the Article 50 talks might move on.

[This piece was originally written in the format of a Twitter thread and has been minorly edited and corrected.] 

We now have some sense of where next both sides are on all the major issues: Phase 1, transition and the new relationship UK-EU.

Sure, it is patchy but we know considerable more than we did.

Rather than break things down in huge detail, let’s take a more practical approach and think what needs to be done and when.

The central task is still to have a deal in place for 29 March 2019. That means a text, ideally by October 2018, maybe November at a push.

But what must go in it?

Practically, transition must be in there, to govern what happens as Britain leaves the European Union.

Politically, the European Union has insisted that Phase 1 issues are also resolved here.

The ‘future relationship’ only needs some language about desire to work towards it, not detail. So, I consider it largely expendable if/when other things get bogged down. (note there is a trade-off of losing this from the Article 50 deal, namely that it will slow down transition, making the December 2020 target end-date virtually impossible.)

The ‘future relationship’ is thus a bit of a diversion, even if the UK Government has been correct to say it links to the Phase 1 resolution, for the talk of recent weeks has diverted the political attention from Phase 1.

Phase 1 issues abound.

Central to this is the Irish dimension. Despite disliking Option C, Britain hasn’t advanced detailed models for A or B, and risks being backed into a corner by its joint report commitments (remember that the joint report matters on pacta sunt servanda basis, and failure to honour it will have reputational issues for Britain when discussing Free Trade Agreements with third countries, quite beyond the immediate impact on the UK-EU relationship.)


Likewise, the UK is finding that the European Parliament isn’t giving any ground on citizens’ rights. Again here, the government’s rash language on ‘no diminution of rights post-Brexit’ is coming back to haunt the UK in the negotiations.

The core difficulty here is that the option to push these points into the transition period doesn’t look available. The European Union has linked the latter to the former, so there must be some accord by October 2018.

The March European Council will be central. A failure to agree on the transition period (where differences are actually more manageable) will be driven by a lack of clarity on Phase 1.

That would push things into the Summer and there will almost be no scope for any delay then. Already by July it will be much clearer if this is all going to happen.

An important point to remember is that both sides are really fighting to get to a deal. Britain is being more realistic about available choices, whilst the European Union is leaving the door open to further evolution of its position.

Talk on cherry-picking doesn’t help. A final deal will be a hodge-podge, especially as the services element rolls on (now with added Common Fisheries Policy linkage), so focus must be on what is politically viable.


Both sides have red lines, both of which boil down to ‘what’s going to fly with domestic audiences’. The European Union needs to reassure against a Brexit contagion. The UK needs to reassure that Brexit does, in fact, mean Brexit. [sic]

We are not at an impasse yet. Britain has still got some flexibility from its lack of precision, so its most likely gambit would be to retrofit a deal with a language to effect that “this was what we had planned all along”.

The European Union is now reaching the point where it has to acknowledge that ‘off-the-shelf’ models have more flexibility than what they have said, and that whatever deal it is ‘essentially’ going to look like CETA (or whatever).


So, the rhetorical space exists, but it will have to be underpinned by substance. And this is the main problem. If we are to get to congress at or around the March European Council, then the A and/or B models for the Irish dimension have to be tabled. That has to be the central lock to it all.

Sadly, the citizens’ rights come second in this. The European Council might take the view that the European Parliament is biddable, if presented with the choice of ‘current package’ or ‘no deal’. (that is dubious, given the proximity of the 2019 European Parliament election and the current unhappiness about Martin Selmayr by the way.)

However, the current UK rhetoric still lacks indication of any of this happening.

In summary, the Article 50 negotiation isn’t at an impasse yet, but it could soon be.🔷

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(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)

(Cover: Flickr/70023venus2009.)