It might only be a procedural step but this week marked another important pre-Brexit negotiations milestone. The Council of Ministers’ General Affairs Council (GAC) formally approved its Brexit “negotiating directives”, the final procedural hurdle ahead of the start of negotiations proper. As with previous procedural steps, what has been most striking on the EU27 side is the ongoing unity and calmness with which the EU has slowly but surely prepared its position. Approval by GAC this week was another prime example – as per Article 50, it was the Commission who drafted the initial document. But it was Ministers in Council (representing EU 27 Member States) who approved this mandate for Barnier, in the process making only minor modifications to the content.
In contrast, Brussels based officials are concerned that their softly, softly, bureaucratic approach jars with the UK election campaign’s Brexit tub-thumping. They are worried that the rhetorical distance between the two sides will sour relations before the negotiations have even started. Whilst the EU preparations have thus far largely taken place behind closed doors and away from the media spotlight, the UK election has led to a more public, combative tone from the British government. It’s also ironic that the roles will be reversed when it comes to transparency around the future process. It is the EU27 side which is keen to have open negotiations come mid-June, with a commitment to publish positions and negotiating papers. Once the campaign spin is concluded, it is the UK who is wary of showing its hand publicly, for fear of losing negotiating leverage.
As the grandstanding intensifies across the UK in the run up to the 8 June general election, there’s an almost eerily stoic atmosphere in Brussels. With a little over four weeks before the first formal negotiations – penciled in for 19 June – the message from the EU is simple: ready when you are.