Brexit Update… when will the fog clear?

When will we know the details of the U.K.’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union? The “political declaration” on future ties scheduled for completion in October could leave many questions unanswered.

There are two reasons. One is time. Substantive talks haven’t even started yet. There’s now just under six months before the EU summit in October. Factor in a short summer break and time is already tight for getting anything close to a full trade deal of the sort that Brexit Secretary David Davis said he wants.

In any case, talks on the future don’t look to be starting any time soon. EU officials say the priority should be solving the Irish border issue and the other not-insignificant matters left over from the first phase of the negotiation, such as how to settle potential breaches of the Brexit deal itself. Some in Brussels think that could eat up two months.

But the main problem isn’t really time, it’s about the will – on both sides. As a few U.K. newspapers reported last week, Davis is said to have won the opening round of a battle against Oliver Robbins, the civil servant heading the U.K.’s negotiating team, to push for a more detailed text in October. Many U.K. officials privately acknowledge however that vaguer language would suit Britain better so as not to tie its hands in trade deal talks during the 21-month transition period, according to people with knowledge of the talks in Brussels.

The U.K. might not have much say anyway. The level of detail contained in the future-relationship declaration will largely be determined by the EU. Many of the 27 EU governments are coming round to the idea that absence of detail would be beneficial, according to officials. Some see it giving the U.K. more opportunity to remain closer to the EU than current plans allow for; others don’t want to lose their own bargaining power (with the U.K. and among each other) on sensitive issues.

One thing is clear though: Don’t confuse lack of detail for lack of precision. While the political declaration might well fall short of anything resembling a full trade deal, the EU will nonetheless make sure that it pins the U.K. down on the fundamentals of the relationship.

…and now for Trade

It’s the moment Britain has been waiting for since early last year: the chance to talk about what trade ties between Britain and the European Union will look like after Brexit.

But as discussions on the future relationship open this week, it’s still not clear how much the two sides can achieve – or want to achieve – before Brexit day on March 29, 2019. Even within the British side, there are divisions about what the U.K. should be aiming for. At stake is how much British voters and businesses will know about where they are headed post-split. So far all the talk has been about the divorce, rather than what comes next.

Brexit Secretary David Davis is still pushing for as much detail as possible on the future relationship before exit day. He raised the prospect on Thursday that Parliament could veto the divorce deal if future trade ties aren’t spelled out enough. But some U.K. officials in private say a less specific agreement is a better idea, so as not to bind their hands going into the nitty-gritty negotiation that’s due to take place during the two-year transition starting next March.

EU officials have long said that the agreement on the future relationship will be vague, and many EU governments are also coming around to that idea. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier raised the prospect last week of Britain changing its mind after Brexit and going for a much closer relationship than the one it’s headed for now.

The other reason it’s unlikely much will get done on trade this year is a lack of time, and EU officials are focused on the issue of the Irish border. They may have agreed in December that “sufficient progress” had been made on the matter for talks to move on to trade, but there’s still no agreement on how the divorce treaty will be worded on that intractable issue.

Finally, the two sides start trade discussions from distant positions. The EU says Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposals so far amount to unacceptable cherry-picking. While Davis says the individual national interests of the 27 countries on the other side will start to come into play, helping Britain, EU unity seems to be national interest No. 1 even for Britain’s closest EU friends.