Last Saturday, one month to the day after Mrs May’s letter to the EU initiating the Article 50 proceedings, the European Council responded with its “Guidelines for Brexit negotiations”. Its press release on the matter was short, and to the point, but long enough to be quite clear on the Union’s opening position and negotiating stance. In presenting the Guidelines, the Council president, Donald Tusk, also gave some clear signals on the attitude of the 27 member states to the forthcoming discussions.
The EU-27’s position should not come as any surprise: both their overall approach and their “red lines” have been clear for some time. The EU intends to deal sequentially with the two main issues of Britain’s withdrawal and subsequent relationship: it has never varied from this and has always insisted that the divorce agreement must be settled before any future trading arrangements are discussed. The main clarification in Saturday’s announcement is that in the separation settlement, the EU will prioritise determination of the UK financial commitments to the EU, agreement on residence and other rights of EU citizens in the UK, and the issue of the Northern Ireland border.
The EU’s negotiating stance is also no surprise. The 27 members showed full unanimity in the Council – the position was agreed very quickly and easily – and gave full confidence to their main negotiator, Michel Barnier. British hopes of sowing discord among the other 27 states and benefitting from a “divide and rule” approach would seem to be unrealistic.
So far, so predictable: the EU has been very consistent in everything it has said since the referendum decision last June, and the latest paper from the Council merely confirms and clarifies its many earlier statements. And while any party to a negotiation is going to set out a forthright opening position, there is an internal logic and coherence to the EU’s stance which suggests that it will not easily be moved from it.
What is newer is an insight into the attitude of the 27 member states to the forthcoming negotiations. And in a word, and without exaggerating too much, that attitude is one of growing concern. Concern at the UK’s approach to the negotiations, and concern also that the gap between their position and British aspirations is dangerously wide.
The EU is finding it quite hard to detect where the British side might realistically settle. They have long dismissed as irrelevant Boris Johnson’s infamous quip that when it came to cake, he was “pro having it and pro eating it”, but they are dismayed to see that, a year after he made the comment, this attitude still seems to permeate much of the UK’s approach.
The UK is seen as behaving like the husband in a marriage who announces “I’m off” and then wants a clean break on his own terms (ie no ongoing financial commitments), plus “let’s stay friends”. In any divorce, men who behave like that are liable to find (a) that the courts tend to award ongoing maintenance payments and obligations, and (b) the abandoned wife tends not to be quite as keen on “staying friends”. Indeed, as one person at the Commission observed to me, “if Boris is not careful he is going to find that he does not ‘have his cake and eat it’, so much as ‘not have his cake but still have to pay for it’”.
Given these concerns, the meeting that Theresa May had with Jean-Claude Juncker last week assumed even greater importance. It was, by all accounts, a disaster, with the European side left baffled at the British approach and seriously worried that the negotiations were heading for a failure. At one point, apparently, Mrs May said that she “was going to make Brexit a success”, only for one member of the EU delegation to reply “It is not going to be a success. You are going to be further outside the Union than even Turkey is”.
Whether it was the diplomatic nuances of Donald Tusk, calling on the UK to come up with a “serious response” to the EU’s position, or François Hollande’s reminder that “there will be a cost for the UK – that is a consequence of the choice that was made”, or Jean-Claude Juncker’s more aggressive remark to Mrs Merkel that Mrs May was “deluding herself” and appeared to be “living in another galaxy”, there is growing unease that British expectations are unrealistic and will cause major problems as the negotiations get into the details.
The nub of the matter appears to be Mrs May’s negotiating style, which is driving the UK’s stance and which is increasingly clearly uncompromising in the extreme. As the British electorate are finding in the current election campaign, when she establishes a position she can be extremely stubborn – witness her refusal to change her views on immigration and the inclusion of students in the statistics despite almost unanimous opposition from her cabinet on the matter, or her dogged determination to revive the grammar school system for which there appears to be almost no appetite in the general population. Indeed there are times when it seems that she is trying to prove that when it comes to Iron Ladies and being Not for Turning, Mrs Thatcher was a feckless lightweight.
We can only suppose that one of the things driving Mrs May is a sense of sticking to her word. She really does want to be, and be seen as, the honest hard-working politician, the opposite of the spin and bluff, wing it and hope style of her predecessor. Instead she is very direct, and says what she wants. And it is – in many circumstances – an admirable trait. But whether it is the optimal approach to “the most difficult negotiations facing Britain for a generation”, as even her lieutenants admit the Brexit talks will be, remains to be seen.
The main concern is that her red lines are only a few inches behind her opening position. There is no fallback position, no room for manoeuvre; indeed it is as if the First World War generals had a big and strong front trench … and nothing behind it. It is to be hoped that she, or at any rate one of the few advisers who have her ear, remembers the tale of the oak tree and the reed. As our readers will recall, the oak tree was strong and unyielding while the reed bent and turned to every passing gust of wind; but it was the reed that survived the storm.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the EU has decided not to try to follow and understand the nuances of British political posturing, but instead to lay out its terms, stick to its guns and deliver what it considers to be the optimal outcome for the peoples of the 27 member states. Whether that outcome will include a good deal for Britain, a poor deal for Britain or no deal at all they do not know. And increasingly, it is probable that they will not very much care.