21 Nov 2018

The May/ Juncker talks

This was a meeting Theresa May requested. There are things to discuss with Jean-Claude Juncker and negotiators worked into the night trying to work out how to reconcile Theresa May’s hopes of saying she’s secured a chance of frictionless trade with the EU’s desire to protect its rules of the club. But this is also about appearances.

Theresa May often said during the last election campaign that it was a choice about who to send into the negotiating room. As we all know, she hasn’t actually been in the negotiating room. The EU weren’t entertaining that kind of set-up and didn’t want one country played off another by the UK. The Polish President’s interview with Matt Frei for tonight’s Channel 4 News gives you a sense of how things could’ve gone wrong for Europe if they’d slackened those rules.

But they didn’t and the negotiating has been done at official level with political guidance and with Michel Barnier and his team acting on behalf of the EU27.

This visit is in fact part of the “selling of the deal” which Theresa May is now embarked on. Some in her team were rattled that the Cabinet resignations and internal party rows got more coverage than the detail of the agreement on some bulletins. But the polling her own team is poring over suggests that it may have played to her advantage. Office seekers seemed like they were politicians “playing games” (a phrase she deploys against Jeremy Corbyn but which you sense she hopes spills onto others’ reputations too), one whose seen internal polling said. Whereas Theresa May was seen as “the grown up in the room.”

None of which seems to be helping her with an ever growing and daunting tally of declared opponents to the deal in her own party.

Some EU sources dismiss the afternoon flurry of talk that the weekend summit might be cancelled. Spanish resistance to Gibraltar being treated as part of the UK for the future negotiations was one source of the flurry. EU sources say it is an arguments that can and must be separated from the closing stages of the negotiations. The argument that Britain must give some solid undertakings on future fisheries policy before it is given a customs arrangement that could turn into a customs union-type deal is still live and has France at the front of those pressurising for a concession.

Other outstanding business like the one bit of the Withdrawal Agreement the European Commission is ready to change – the “20xx” date temporarily put in for the end of any future transition extension – should be relatively easily fixed. The EU proposed “December 2022” as the end date but the UK government wants it to be before the next general election due in June 2022. Compromise on that didn’t seem to be creating too much of a headache. The Polish MEP Danita Hubner  who chairs the Constitutional Affairs Committee and who met Michel Barnier earlier this week says it’s possible there could be no cut off date at all for the extended transition agreement but there could be words which make it clear it will only come into play if there is a full blown new relationship agreement on the horizon.

So there is still a decent chance this deal can be finished off in time for Sunday’s planned summit. There is also a very clear understanding across town that it has little chance, as things stand, of being passed by the Commons next month.

Part of the nerves on show at PMQs today amongst MPs unhappy with the deal  was their firm belief that institution like the EU and the British state do not march into scenarios like that with no Plan B salvage operation. Those edgy MPs are pretty sure such planning has been gamed on both sides of the Channel, possibly in several different forms. They haven’t seen it but are confident they wouldn’t like it if they did.

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