Brexit talks: May and Macron do lunch
It wasn’t meant to be like this.
When Theresa May was drafting her Lancaster House speech on Brexit, definitively ruling out membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union, she and her advisers gamed the Europe she would be dealing with.
President Francois Fillon would’ve won the French Presidential election, her aides confidently predicted, bringing an Anglophile and his Welsh wife to the Elysee. Chancellor Merkel would still be in her pomp, the advisers assumed. The EU would be unnerved by Brexit but might be stewarded towards a compromise deal by Germany.
Instead, President Macron jumped out from nowhere to win the Presidency and invigorate the EU cause. His is the voice people refer to in Brussels. Angela Merkel is struggling to form a coalition and even if she stays in office it’s hard to see how her influence is anything other than diminished.
Today’s summit has been worked on by officials putting together a package of what they call “deliverables” for the two leaders to announce at their press conferences. That should give them time to touch on Brexit while they’re in their bilateral.
One Cabinet Minister said the French are indisputably the most formidable challenge to Britain in the Brexit negotiations. The minister said there were strong suspicions that Paris was keen to stretch out the negotiations over a transition phase to prolong uncertainty for UK businesses pondering a move to Paris.
One other theme you repeatedly hear on the transition is how many EU capitals are convinced that the UK is going to need a status quo transition that lasts long after the end of 2020 (the current working notion of an end date). But EU officials say extending the transition is too controversial a topic to introduce into Britain’s fragile political state, and not something the EU27 particularly want to complicate their lives with at the moment either. If it is needed later it can be negotiated then, the rationale runs, and the EU27 will have more leverage in that conversation because the UK needs would be that much more pressing.
The skies opened and thunder could be heard as Mrs May and President Macron went into Sandhurst to begin their talks and a rainbow was visible in the sky. Any bilateral chat is more likely to be about the emerging UK Phase 2 position: a regulatory alignment approach, as outlined in this Institute for Government document, much thumbed in Brussels in recent week.
Lunch beforehand was at a Michelin-starred pub in Theresa May’s constituency. The Royal Oak has a Masterchef winner as chef and is owned by TV star Michael Parkinson. President Macron chatted to French staff working there and then tweeted out the video.