BRUSSELS — Theresa May’s first EU summit was never going to be easy but Thursday’s encounter in Brussels may be a thoroughly bleak affair now that fellow leaders feel she has taken a hard line on breaking away from the European Union.
The British prime minister caught the other 27 off guard on Oct. 2 when, having campaigned to stay in the bloc, she thrilled her Conservatives’ conference in Birmingham with rousing pledges to start Brexit talks by March, curb immigration and reject EU court rulings — a recipe, EU leaders said, for “hard Brexit”.
When, over after-dinner coffee on the first of two days of talks, she briefs the summit on her plans, the rest will listen closely for any sign of more flexibility on what she wants in order to retain closer trade ties. But despite talk in London of May still exploring options, EU officials and diplomats do not expect there to be much softening, on either side, this week.
“How this is going to end, no one knows,” one senior EU official said. “For now, the train is heading towards a wall.”
And amid fears that wily British diplomacy may set them off against each other to secure a “cherry picking” deal that could further unravel the entire Union, the 27 will present May with the kind of united front not always seen in the EU summit room.
“There’s a surprising degree of consensus,” a second senior EU official said. “No one wants to give the Brits an opening.”
After the Birmingham speech, EU leaders welcomed an end to uncertainty over when Britain would launch the two-year divorce process. But although May called key players beforehand to alert them to her timetable, none was ready for her list of demands.
Aides to German Chancellor Angela Merkel found the party tone “menacingly harsh”; French President Francois Hollande, who like Merkel faces an electoral test next year from euroskeptics inspired by June’s Brexit referendum, said Britain had chosen a painful break and must be held to the consequences.
Summit chair Donald Tusk spoke to May late on Tuesday and does not expect discussion after she briefs the summit. EU leaders insist there be no “pre-negotiation” before May writes to Brussels with a formal notification of Britain’s demands.
Some seem more inclined than others, however, to accede to British requests that they help May prepare her letter to ensure that whatever she asks for is not simply rejected out of hand. Some EU diplomats note Brussels’ cooperation with May’s predecessor David Cameron last year before he sought EU concessions that were mostly granted in the hope he would win the referendum.
But the mood appears to have hardened in EU capitals.
With Cameron, a third senior EU official said, “we were on the same side”, working together to help him keep Britain in the bloc. “Now, it’s different,” he said, with London and the 27 pursuing divergent goals that may be mutually incompatible.
In particular, the 27 are determined to show Britons — and any others tempted to break up the EU — that the benefits of a common market, with its favorable tariff terms, are not available to those unwilling to accept full free migration within the EU or the authority of EU judges.
To those in London who see that as an opening gambit, EU leaders have responded with sharper rhetoric, ruling out a “soft Brexit” that keeps Britain anchored in the single market. Summit host Tusk took Brexit campaigners to task for joking that Britain can “have its cake and eat it” and dangled the prospect of Britons backing out of Brexit.
WHAT DOES BRITAIN WANT?
The former Polish premier’s willingness to engage in debate with Britain reflects an impression on the continent that the country, and even May’s own cabinet, is still in a quandary over what voters want and how to deliver it. The prime minister has said she is still listening to “differing views” on her team.
EU officials say that behind closed doors British officials have been trying to keep open options for closer engagement with the EU, raising for example the possibility that London might go on contributing to an EU budget that subsidizes eastern Europe.
Some have also played down May’s Birmingham speech as designed to win support for the unelected leader within her own euroskeptic party, not as a final word to Brussels. “May is talking hard Brexit but other officials are saying ‘maybe we can work things out’ – so which is it?” the second EU official said.
British officials say May and her inner circle have given little indication of what they expect to negotiate. A fourth senior EU official familiar with the issue said: “(The British) civil service have no clue what the political class wants.”
For EU leaders, expecting at this stage to hear little new from May that she has not said in public, the priority at the summit may be to close up their own ranks ahead before March.
“What the EU needs to do,” the third EU official said, “Is anticipate what May will ask for and prepare for it, from now.”
(Additional reporting by Noah Barkin in Berlin, Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan in London, Elizabeth Pineau and Yves Clarisse in Paris, Crispian Balmer in Rome and Gabriela Baczynska and Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; editing by Ralph Boulton)
Theresa May needs to make clear that Remainers aren’t traitors – and that Philip Hammond is just doing his job
By JAMES KIRKUP
18 OCTOBER 2016 • 11:02AM
Although the spin-doctors hate headlines and about “split” and insist on “unity”, it is actually good to have disagreements between senior politicians and especially ministers. Debate and even dispute almost always leads to better policy, because ideas are fully tested and examined.
So it is, in principle, a good thing that there is dispute in the Cabinet about what form Brexit should take. It is right and proper and in the interests of the nation as a whole that ministers test all the options, examine all the ideas with the harshest of critical gazes.
Which means that Philip Hammond must stay in the Treasury, from which office he is pushing the case for the customs union and the single market and asking questions about the economic effect of leaving those arrangements and restricting immigration. Asking such questions is his job, and by doing so he makes government policy on Brexit — whatever form it takes – better.
The same is true of David Davis and Liam Fox, the Brexiteers pushing hard for leaving the single market and the customs union. They put their case with full force and a debate ensues. Policy is improved as a result. This process of debate is, so long as it is kept collegiate and reasonably private, the essence of good Cabinet government.
Which makes it all the more extraordinary and unedifying that some Conservatives who should know better are trying to remove Mr Hammond.
The suggestion from Iain Duncan Smith that Mr Hammond should shut up or ship out is intellectually alarming. Do IDS and friends really want a Cabinet devoid of debate, ministers all adhering to a single orthodoxy on pain of being fired? That’s a recipe for stupid, narrow government that makes mistakes and fails to reach out to those beyond its core supporters – something I’m sure Mr Duncan Smith would never want to bring about.
It also borders on the irresponsible at a time when markets and business are damagingly uncertain about the path the government will take through the next decade. I’m no expert, but I reckon the prospect of a finance minister being forced from office for the apparent thought-crime of advocating the single market would take at least three cents off the pound in a matter of minutes, not to mention the chilling effect on potential investment. I always thought these were things that the Conservative Party cared about, but perhaps Brexit has changed even more than I realised.
So Theresa May needs to do a little more than expressing via a spokesman “full confidence” in Mr Hammond, not least because of that phrase’s unfortunate associations with political doom. She needs to make clear – in person – that she values full and frank Cabinet debate and all those who take part in it.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond
- EU Referendum: Supported Remain
- Born: 4 December 1955 (age 60)
From: Epping, Essex, but now lives in Surrey
Education: Local state school and then Oxford University where he studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics. After his degree he worked for a small pharmaceutical company
Family: Married to Susan since 1991. They have three children: Amy, Sophie and William, and also a dog. His father was a civil engineer
Political career He first got involved in politics in 1979 by volunteering to help in the General Election campaign in the Westminster North constituency. Stood for Parliament in Newham North East in 1994 but was defeated before finally being elected in 1997 for Runnymede and Weybridge
Key political roles
- Foreign Secretary 2014-2016
- Secretary of State for Defence 2011–2014
- Secretary of State for Transport 2010–2011
- Conservative MP for Runnymede and Weybridge since 1997
Tags: ‘hard’ Brexit, Brexit, Britain, British diplomacy, Conservative Party, EU, EU summit, European Union, euroskeptic, Iain Duncan Smith, Philip Hammond, Philip Hammond must stay in the Treasury, Remainers aren't traitors, Theresa May, Treasury, UK