If you're familiar with European politics you already know that nothing happens quickly. Deals can take decades to negotiate. Meetings are full of formalities and tend to go on for many hours.
But not always. Earlier today, leaders of the 27 European Union nations other than the United Kingdom got together in Brussels to discuss their negotiating stance as they prepare for talks with the UK over that nation's departure from the EU ("Brexit"), which must be completed by March 2019. According to one official involved in the talks, that discussion took just one minute. The entire meeting took 15 minutes--just enough time for the world leaders in attendance to greet each other.
They are unanimous in their message to the UK, and it is this: We're not going to make things easy for you.
The biggest point of disagreement between the two parties is in what order the negotiations will take place. That might seem like a quaint procedural argument, but it's dead serious. Britain badly wants a "special and deep partnership" with the EU--it's a phrase British Prime Minister Theresa May used over and over in her letter that officially began the Brexit pullout. And no wonder. Without a favorable trade agreement, after Brexit the UK will trade with the EU on the same terms as any other nation and pay much higher tariffs than it does now.
But the EU nations want a few things too, particularly for the UK to pay some of all of its budgetary obligations through 2020, a sum of 40 to 60 billion euros (roughly $43 to $65 billion). It also wants protections for the more than 3 million Europeans living in the UK, as well as any others who move there before Brexit takes effect.
Here's why timing matters: May stated repeatedly, including in her official letter, that she believes these two negotiations should take place simultaneously. That clearly will play better with voters back home: If Britain agrees to pay the EU tens of billions of euros, it will at least be getting something in return. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel said from the beginning that the UK would first have to complete negotiations on its withdrawal from the EU--including its remaining payment--and only then could the two parties negotiate a new trade agreement. It's now clear that the remaining EU leaders agree with Merkel on this point, or at least they will not begin talks on any new trade agreement until "significant progress" has been made on the withdrawal agreement. And they've also decreed that individual member nations are forbidden from negotiating their own separate agreements with the UK in the meantime.
Playing to the home crowd.
Meantime, back in London, at May's request, Parliament has voted to hold a "snap" election on June 8. (Under British law, two thirds of Parliament can call for such an election at any time.) It's been seen as a smart but cynical move. Nominally, the purpose is to give May--who was appointed prime minister after David Cameron resigned in the wake of the Brexit vote--more of a legitimate mandate going into the negotiations. But it's also an opportunity to solidify the Conservative majority, something that will likely get harder to do as negotiations drag on and Britons begin facing the real-world consequences of Brexit. And it breaks May's often-repeated promise not to call for early elections.
Although May is widely expected to stay in her job after the elections, negotiations with the EU won't start until afterward, leaving May even less time to work out a favorable exit deal or trade agreement with her former EU colleagues. And in another Brexit development today, a retired Scottish doctor announced his intention to sue the British Government if necessary to force another referendum which he says is required for the UK to ratify any new agreement May may negotiate. If his suit succeeds, that will in effect force the Brexit re-vote that many have been calling for ever since the move to depart passed by a very narrow margin back in June 2016. It also means that the available time to work out a new trade deal may be even shorter than anyone thought.