This article was originally published in The Sunday Telegraph on 15 October 2017.
The latest round of EU withdrawal talks ended last Friday in a wholly predictable manner, with Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, declaring that there had been insufficient progress to allow him to recommend the European Council to open discussions on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the continuing 27.
The talks have turned into such a ritual of frustration that it is remarkable that David Davis, my friend and former colleague, retains his patience and good humour.
Time, as Barnier repeatedly reminds us, is passing. It is now more than six months since we served notice of withdrawal and less than 18 months before we are due to leave.
There can be little doubt that the EU is stringing out the negotiations to pile pressure on the UK.
The longer that discussion of the future relationship is delayed, they undoubtedly calculate, the less time the UK will have to prepare for life outside the EU and the more inclined it will be to agree to a substantial divorce settlement and a diluted Brexit.
Clearly, it is in the interests of both the UK and the EU to have a good relationship after March 2019. Article 50 provides that withdrawal negotiations should take into account the framework of the future relationship. The European Union otherwise such a punctiliously legalistic entity, is therefore in flagrant breach of its own founding treaty.
The European Council, which is to be held this weeks, comes at an important time in the withdrawal process. Given the EU’s stubborn intransigence, it is the moment when the Prime Minster should make clear that the UK’s patience is not indefinite.
In her Florence speech, Mrs May made a very fair offer to the EU, saying that the UK would honour all financial commitments made during its membership. She could hardly have done more. Her offer, however, appears to have been rebuffed.
The Prime Minister should therefore firmly inform the council this week that if the EU does not very soon confirm its willingness to discuss the future relationship, the UK will suspend further negotiations until such time as it is ready to do so.
In the meantime, we will begin preparations for a new trading relationship with the EU on the World Trade Organisation terms – which, given the scale of European exports to the UK, would probably prove unwelcome to EU manufacturers.
At the same time, the Chancellor should make provision for the funding that will be needed to underpin that new relationship: providing, for example, for extensive new customs facilities and associated IT.
Such a declaration will send a powerful signal to the EU that trying to make the UK sweat is a strategy that will not work. It should, therefore, result in either an early breach of the negotiating logjam or a recognition by Brussels that its stubbornness is founded on political, rather than economic, considerations.
A good relationship with the EU is highly desirable. The UK has displayed conspicuous goodwill. Now is the time for the EU to reciprocate.