Negotiations are to resume in just over a week’s time in Brussels, amid growing concern in government that at the current pace it may be impossible to open trade talks until the end of the year.
The EU has always insisted that key aspects of Britain’s withdrawal – including the principles of a financial settlement, the future of EU citizens living in the UK and the status of Northern Ireland – be dealt with before talks on a new trade deal can begin.
Davis initially suggested the timetabling of talks would be “the row of the summer”, with Britain pressing to begin discussing the future relationship from the start. When negotiations began formally after the general election, he appeared to have conceded that the EU’s approach was acceptable.
But in an article in the Sunday Times, he reopened the debate, arguing that the talks so far have exposed the fact that it is impossible to settle some of the withdrawal questions without a sense of what the future relationship between Britain and the EU will be.
Pointing out that the government had published two papers last week, on customs arrangements and Northern Ireland – the former a “partnership” issue, the latter due to be settled in withdrawal talks – Davis said: “This highlighted a fundamental question about the structure of those hugely important negotiations. All along, the UK has argued that talks around our withdrawal cannot be treated in isolation from the future partnership we want.
“In fact, I firmly believe the early rounds of the negotiations have already demonstrated that many questions around our withdrawal are inextricably linked to our future relationship.
“Nowhere is that point truer than on the question of Northern Ireland. It is simply not possible to reach a near-final agreement on the border issue until we’ve begun to talk about how our broader future customs arrangement will work.”
He added: “There is real value in discussing a few issues upfront. Doing so should allow us to give businesses and citizens the certainty they need.”
Davis reiterated that Britain still hoped to achieve sufficient progress on the withdrawal issues to allow both sides to “move swiftly on” to the future partnership aspect of the talks.
He said that with the government aiming at a deal that would minimise or even remove the need for customs checks at the border with the EU, it hoped it may not need distinct “separation arrangements” in some areas.
“Both sides need to move swiftly on to discussing our future partnership, and we want that to happen after the European council in October,” Davis said.
Brussels appears unlikely to look kindly on Britain’s request, since the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has a formal negotiating mandate agreed by all 27 member states, which limits his flexibility. Britain hopes EU leaders will agree at the October summit that sufficient progress has been made to move on to discussing a future free-trade deal.
If talks on this new partnership do not start until December, or even the new year, it could leave just 10 months for them to be completed.
Britain is not due to leave the EU until the end of March 2019, but when Barnier was appointed he said he wanted to wrap up the talks by October 2018 to allow time for the final deal to be ratified by the European parliament, the European council and the UK parliament.
In an attempt to move the debate forward, the Department for Exiting the European Union has announced that the government will publish five papers in the coming week, on issues including judicial oversight and how to ensure goods continue to move freely across borders when Brexit happens.
Davis said that given the government’s determination to leave the jurisdiction of the European court of justice, repeatedly set out by Theresa May over the past year, oversight of the new “deep and special partnership” would require a “new and unique solution”.
The Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake, said: “David Davis promised us ‘the row of the summer’ over the Brexit timetable, only to capitulate weeks later to the EU’s preferred timetable after a disastrous general election for his party which vastly undermined their negotiating position.
“To be now, a couple of months down the line, trying to reopen the issue, reeks of desperation at an approaching economic storm and a cabinet who don’t have a clue.”
This article was written by Heather Stewart Political editor, for theguardian.com on Sunday 20th August 2017 11.45 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010