22 Jun 2017

Brussels talks: Theresa May speaks, but Emmanuel Macron stars

Seeing the leaders arrive here at the European Council you’re struck by the buoyant mood. It could just be the relief of entering air conditioning in a sweltering Brussels. More likely it’s the post-Macron ecstasy still coursing through this city.

Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel excitedly broke off a media interview in the European Council foyer to beam at the man who around here they think symbolises a project on the turn. Twice he gave the French President a respectful ninety degree bow.

After any number of crises, culminating in the Brexit vote, some EU leaders are daring to think that Emmanuel Macron’s facing down of the right-wing populists in France proves they’ve all of them truly turned a corner.

That outlook, together with their analysis of the UK election result, is leading some of them to think that Britain might be regretting its vote to leave this apparently thriving body.

Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, has been watching British television news and was clearly very struck by Philip Hammond’s speech at the Mansion House on Tuesday and the section on Europe in particular.

On arrival at the European Council, the Dutch PM said that he hoped the UK could find itself in a Norway style position, in (or virtually in) the Single Market and the Customs Union, paying for the privilege and obeying ECJ judgements into the bargain. He clearly thought that might not even be a temporary arrangement.

Given that the Lancaster House position of the government is still meant to be the official position – coming out of the Customs Union and out of the Single Market – and that was reiterated at the Cabinet Brexit Committee last week, you can see how that might alarm some Brexiteers.

Tonight, sometime after 9pm, at the end of dinner, Mrs May will tell the EU 27 leaders her proposals for EU citizens’ rights. Earlier this evening, Chancellor Merkel said that she was hoping for “the most far-reaching guarantees for EU citizens as possible” – not just, she said, for those already in the UK but for those who might move to the UK in the coming two years.

The UK paper will be published in full on Monday, fleshing out what the PM says tonight in Brussels. You can bet your bottom euro that it will not be a perfect match for Chancellor Merkel’s vision.

But Mrs May will not be able to gauge too much from the room tonight apart from some facial expressions. That’s because Donald Tusk, the European Council President, chairing the session, is insistent that there will be no negotiating on Brexit here.

Mrs May will say her bit and then withdraw allowing the 27 to start a conversation about who gets to play host to some of the lucrative bodies currently based in the UK, like the HQ for the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency.

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