Richard North, 29/11/2017  

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UK and EU negotiators, we are told, have reached an agreement in principle on the financial settlement.

This came after a meeting in Brussels late last week, following what have been described as "intense" discussions led by Oliver Robbins (pictured with David Davis), the UK Brexit coordinator. A final figure of between €45-55 billion has been mentioned, although no figure has been officially acknowledged and official sources are saying that the do not "recognise" the higher figure.

This potentially settles one of the three "phase one" issues, leaving the expats and the Irish question to be resolved. Attempts will be made to reach an agreement on these issues before 4 December, when Mrs May is due to meet with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

If progress can be made then, EU ambassadors at a meeting two days later, on 6 December, will draft guidelines for the December 14-15 European Council. In between, there will be a European Parliament vote on 13 December, to decide whether there has been "sufficient progress" in the talks.

Needless to say, both sides are playing games on the financial settlement. Attempts are being made to obscure the size of any final payment – if it is accepted. Rather than a single sum, it appears that a complex payment method will be adopted, that allows for phased payments with no end date fixed and no overall figure published. Payments could continue "for decades".

Attempts will be made to massage the figure by offsetting the UK's European Investment Bank (EIB) capital, which will be returned to the Treasury, and by delaying payments until they are actually due, such as the RAL commitments and the pensions apportionment.

Whether this will overcome the opposition from the "ultras" remains to be seen, but there will be unhappiness at what will doubtless be called underhand dealing. This puts further political pressure on Mrs May but, as always, nothing emerges from the Westminster gossip machine that might suggest she might be deposed.

A harbinger comes with the Guardian though, which headlines: "for all Britain's bluster, the EU has it over a barrel". The perception is, most definitely, that the UK is caving in. "For all the huffing and puffing in London", the paper says, "the so-called 'negotiations' over Britain's departure from the European Union have so far proved a remarkably one-sided affair".

Even then, this may all be fluff, as there are no more indications of a solution to the Irish question than there were yesterday. The problems remain just as intractable as they ever were, with no obvious way forward. Talks, though, are said to be "near-continuous", with negotiations over the draft of commitments on the Irish border which will satisfy Dublin.

Time and again, though, Barnier has made it clear that the three "phase one" issues are indivisible. There must be "sufficient progress" on all three before he can recommend to the European Council that they allow talks to move on to cover trade issues. Thus, any financial deal can only stand if the other issues are also agreed. And so far, as an EU official says, "we haven't seen anything on paper yet".

As far as the financial settlement goes - even if it is accepted - it has taken Mrs May eight months from the Article 50 notification, almost to the day, to bring to fruition the least complex of the three issues. This is one which could probably have been settled right at the start, with an up-front offer not so very different to that currently being proposed.

That says absolutely nothing for the competence of Mrs May and her negotiating team and augurs ill for the progress of the talks to come. Having made such a meal of the "phase one" issues, the hardest part is the next phase, as the parties start to engage on trade issues and, in particular, the shape of any "transition" agreement.

With less than a week to go before what Mr Barnier describes as "the moment of truth", there can be no great confidence that we are seeing any great breakthrough. However, with such talks, what the public sees in only a fraction of what is actually going on.

One can only hope that still waters run deep and there is more substance to these latest developments than we have so far learned.

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