Frus­trated EU fears Bri­tain is ‘head­ing for the Brexit rocks’ as in­ter­nal Tory war­fare puts the ne­go­ti­a­tions in jeop­ardy

The Observer - - IN FOCUS - Daniel Bof­fey Stras­bourg

On Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, with Jean Claude Juncker’s state of the union speech call­ing for swifter, deeper in­te­gra­tion still ring­ing in their ears, a gag­gle of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in the Euro­pean par­lia­ment met in a room op­po­site the cham­ber in Stras­bourg.

In the ap­po­sitely named Salle de Mar­garet Thatcher, Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt, the colour­ful for­mer Bel­gian prime min­is­ter who is co­or­di­nat­ing MEPs’ re­sponse to Brexit, dis­cussed with col­leagues from the pro-Euro­pean po­lit­i­cal par­ties on the par­lia­ment’s Brexit steer­ing group how they should re­spond to the seem­ing stale­mate in the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions. The lat­est draft of a par­lia­men­tary res­o­lu­tion was dis­cussed, lament­ing the fail­ure of the talks to de­velop on the key open­ing is­sues – cit­i­zens’ rights, the Ir­ish bor­der and the fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment.

The res­o­lu­tion is set to ad­vise the mem­ber states’ lead­ers, who will make the big de­ci­sion at a sum­mit in Brus­sels on 19-20 Oc­to­ber, that the ne­go­ti­a­tions can­not move on to trade as things stand. “The talk at the meet­ing was mainly about when to hold a vote on it in the par­lia­ment,” an EU of­fi­cial said. “They want to have it on 3 Oc­to­ber – the day be­fore Theresa May makes her speech to Tory con­fer­ence. They want the Tory del­e­gates to hear about it.”

The pub­lic rep­ri­mand for the prime min­is­ter at a sen­si­tive point in the po­lit­i­cal cal­en­dar isn’t just about grand­stand­ing from the MEPs. Her gov­ern­ment’s of­fers on cit­i­zens’ rights and the Ir­ish bor­der, along with a lack of of­fer on the fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment, has gen­uinely con­cerned se­nior fig­ures within the Euro­pean com­mis­sion and among the mem­ber states.

On cit­i­zens’ rights, the of­fer to give EU na­tion­als the same rights as Bri­tish cit­i­zens would leave them with fewer rights than to­day. The so­lu­tions pro­posed in Ire­land, in­volv­ing the sus­pen­sion of the nor­mal bor­der checks one would ex­pect for a coun­try out­side the EU’s cus­toms union and sin­gle mar­ket, have been re­jected al­most out of hand by the com­mis­sion, as an af­front to the le­gal or­der. And on the fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment – per­haps the big­gest stum­bling block – the EU’s chief ne­go­tia­tor has ques­tioned whether Brus­sels can re­ally trust the Bri­tish on any­thing, given Down­ing Street’s re­luc­tance to ad­mit Bri­tain has a le­gal duty to live up to the spend­ing com­mit­ments al­ready made by the EU.

Mean­while, the Bri­tish claim they can’t make progress on the Ir­ish bor­der or di­vorce bill un­less they know what their re­la­tion­ship with the EU will be af­ter 29 March 2019, when the UK leaves the bloc. That newly minted ar­gu­ment has par­tic­u­larly riled the com­mis­sion, given that it was thought the Bri­tish had ac­cepted the idea of se­quenced talks, with the trad­ing re­la­tion­ship to be dis­cussed once “suf­fi­cient progress” had been made on the key open­ing is­sues, as en­shrined in ar­ti­cle 50 guide­lines agreed by the EU lead­ers in April. Just to add in­sult to in­jury, the Depart­ment for Ex­it­ing the EU has let it be known that a de­lay to the next round of talks, al­low­ing the prime min­is­ter to make her ma­jor speech in Florence on Thurs­day, will per­mit EU lead­ers time to per­suade Barnier to be more flex­i­ble in the fourth round of talks, which be­gin a few days later. There is a sus­pi­cion that the Bri­tish also be­lieve that once An­gela Merkel is re-elected as Ger­many’s chan­cel­lor this month, she will have po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal to ex­pend on mak­ing things hap­pen.

And now there is the un­wel­come reap­pear­ance on the Brexit bat­tle­field of Boris John­son, with his in­sis­tence that the UK will suc­ceed “might­ily” as a low-reg­u­la­tion econ­omy, no longer pay­ing into the EU bud­get af­ter March 2019. Speak­ing to the Ob­server, the leader of the so­cial­ist bloc, Gianni Pit­tella, fumed: “Boris John­son is em­bar­rass­ing his coun­try once again by re­peat­ing the lies of the Leave cam­paign. He is jeop­ar­dis­ing the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions by threat­en­ing to turn the UK into a low-reg­u­la­tion econ­omy. And he in­sults the in­tel­li­gence of the Bri­tish peo­ple with his tub-thump­ing jin­go­ism. It is more in keep­ing with Trump Tower than White­hall.”

The Ital­ian MEP, echo­ing the thoughts of many in the com­mis­sion, added: “This ap­pears to be yet an­other twist in the in­ter­nal war­fare within the Con­ser­va­tive party. It does the UK no credit and no ser­vice in the wider world. I fear the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment is head­ing towards the Brexit rocks.”

Gun­tram Wolff, a for­mer ad­viser to the French gov­ern­ment, and di­rec­tor of the Bruegel think­tank, said there were grounds for con­cern. “Things are be­ing lost in trans­la­tion – it’s a mat­ter of learn­ing to talk to each other,” he said. “I would never un­der­es­ti­mate the im­por­tance of process and the le­gal frame­work for the ne­go­ti­a­tions to the EU,” he added. “For bet­ter or worse, that is how the EU works. Be­cause they are a col­lec­tive en­tity of 27 mem­ber states, the EU can’t – or it is very dif­fi­cult to – go be­yond [what has been agreed al­ready].

“The idea that we will have the white knight of An­gela Merkel rid­ing in and de­liv­er­ing a great com­pro­mise doesn’t re­ally work if the process isn’t be­ing fol­lowed. And will she want to spend po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal on Brexit? I think only if she thinks a deal is re­al­is­tic and the ground­work is there.”

For those within Europe who want a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial deal to be struck, the brevity of the men­tion of Bri­tain’s de­par­ture in Juncker’s speech was an ad­di­tional cause for con­cern. In a speech de­signed to kick­start a new chap­ter for the EU, Juncker told MEPs that, as much as he would al­ways re­gret the UK’s de­ci­sion last June, the is­sue was not the “be all and end all”. Brexit was not “Europe’s fu­ture”, and the con­ti­nent, now open­ing trade ne­go­ti­a­tions with Aus­tralia and New Zealand, would move on.

An­drius Ku­bil­ius, a for­mer prime min­is­ter of Lithua­nia, ad­mit­ted it was not a good omen. “I am in some ways less op­ti­mistic than I was,” he said. “Sev­eral months ago get­ting a deal with Bri­tain ap­peared to be the most im­por­tant thing we needed to get done. It doesn’t feel like that any more.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.