“There is “sadness,” but Brexit is a “sovereign national decision,” and “we have no desire to punish Britain or ‘teach it a lesson,”’ she said on the margins of the Ambrosetti Forum in Italy, a gathering last weekend of senior European officials. “We want a good future relationship.”
Ms. Vestager is from Denmark, one of Britain’s usual allies in the European Union. But British efforts to lobby countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland separately about the Brexit negotiations have been sharply rebuffed, senior European Union officials said.
Mr. Barnier, himself a former French minister and European commissioner, emphasized at the forum that maintaining European Union solidarity was paramount in the Brexit talks. The terms of Britain’s exit (what he called the “divorce,” and which is so preoccupying the British) were secondary.
“The future of Europe is far more important than Brexit,” he said. “It’s a serious issue but should not be on our leaders’ radar screens all the time.” He is “not aggressive,” he said. “I don’t want to punish or to be naïve.”
Like many European leaders, Mr. Barnier bemoaned Britain’s apparently intractable confusion about what it wants from Brexit. He put that down to the fact that the consequences of leaving the single market and customs union had “important consequences that perhaps were not explained well to the British people.”
Britain cannot, he said in so many words, have its cake and eat it, as its foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, famously and ill-advisedly said a year ago. That is to say, relations with a Britain outside the bloc “could never be better than with a member state.”
The bloc, Mr. Barnier said, “will be intransigent on the single market and the four freedoms,” which include the right to work and travel freely within the European Union, “and a third country cannot imagine we will destabilize or make more fragile our own model” in any deal.
“So there is something pedagogical in our approach,” he said, a remark that infuriated the British news media, which saw it, probably accurately, as patronizing — adding to the ugly tone of much of the public discussion of Brexit. Mr. Barnier himself later commented
on Twitter, somewhat unconvincingly, that he meant his remark generally:
Still, there is no question that significant differences remain on crucial early issues. Foremost among them are Britain’s exit bill, which Brussels insists should include British contributions to the 2014 to 2020 budget that it already agreed to, even after it formally leaves; how to manage a new E.U. border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic; and how to define and adjudicate the rights of the some 3.2 million European Union citizens living in Britain (and the approximately 1.2 million Britons living in the bloc) after Brexit.
The hope is that there will be substantial agreement on these issues before a European Union summit in mid-October, but most officials expect no serious decisions to be made until after the German elections Sept. 24.
But the British position remains in flux, to put it kindly. An early draft of a British government position paper, published by The Guardian on Wednesday, typically caused a furor. The paper would end “rights-based, unconditional free movement” after a 2019 Brexit and make it more difficult for low-skilled European Union workers to settle in Britain and harder for those already there to bring in family members.
The paper was quickly dismissed by the government, saying it was just a policy paper and had not been approved by any ministers.
The chief British negotiator, David Davis, told British legislators on Tuesday that the two sides still had “significant differences” and “very different legal stances” over Britain’s financial settlement. He insisted to legislators that Britain’s negotiating stance was “substantially more flexible and pragmatic than that of the E.U.,” and said he “urged the E.U. to be more imaginative and flexible in its approach.”
Mr. Barnier and the Europeans have rejected British efforts to tie future trading relationships into the discussions about the divorce bill, the Irish border and citizens’ rights, despite British insistence that the border cannot be discussed in isolation.
At the same time, Britain’s opposition Labour Party, which has been full of contradictions itself on Brexit, now says that it wants to leave but remain inside the single market and the customs union for a lengthy transition period, which is essentially the stance of some members of the Conservative government like Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the Exchequer.
Some in Labour want such a status permanently, but that would not seem possible under current European Union law. A lengthy transition would mean continuing to pay into the E.U. budget over several years, which would sharply reduce the divorce bill. But it would also delay Britain’s effective exit, annoying voters who have not shifted their positions, opinion polls indicate, on the desirability of Brexit.
Labour has also announced that it would oppose the government’s bill next week to enable the transposition of European law onto the British statute book in preparation for Brexit. Labour does not have enough votes to block the bill, but argues that it would give the government too much power and needs amendment. Still, the party is risking criticism from its members who voted for Brexit.
The Europeans consider Britain’s position greatly complicated by internal squabbling within the Conservative Party. Prime Minister Theresa May is supposed to provide more clarity in a speech later this month, but part of the British confusion stems from the lack of clarity about what Brexit actually means in terms of a future relationship with the rest of Europe, and that is far from resolved.
But a more serious problem, according to Enrico Letta, the former Italian prime minister, stems from putting Mrs. May, who favored remaining in the European Union, in charge of the government.
“It’s clear from everything she says that she has to overcome this ‘original sin,’ so has to sound tougher,” Mr. Letta said. “It would be better to have a success with a Brexiter, who would have more credibility with Britons and more room to compromise.”
Combined with the fierce British popular press, which favors Brexit, there is “less room for maneuver,” he said. “And in any negotiation, you need room for maneuver.”
While Brexit remains a procedural headache for the European Union, Mr. Letta said, it also provided an alert for Europeans, reminding them of the value of the bloc, however flawed.
“A year ago the British were united and we were divided,” he said. “Now, it’s the reverse.”