25 Nov 2018

EU leaders sign off on UK’s Brexit deal

It took 38 minutes for the EU leaders to sign off on the Brexit deal. There was talk of sadness and a slightly mournful air to the brief proceedings, one source said.

The 27 leaders agreed that when they let Theresa May into their meeting they wanted to ask her about “next steps.” They did not, I am told, mean future trade negotiations but meant how on earth she was going to get the deal through Parliament.

They didn’t, I’m told, learn much that was new from that second session. Theresa May just told them she intended to deliver the deal. At one point before that session started Angela Merkel gestured to Theresa May across the table her tears at Britain’s departure from the EU – she rubbed her eyes and put her head down in sadness.

At a press conference after the meeting Theresa May was asked if she shared the view Chancellor Merkel had just been talking about in her press conference down the corridor, that this was a tragic and sad event. She said she was aware that some people in the UK would feel sadness and the country needed to come together. A leader fully focused on trying to bring the country together might have acknowledged the sadness in some parts of the country in their opening remarks on a day like today.

Mrs May confidently and repeatedly said that the public backed her. They “didn’t want to spend any more time on Brexit,” “the British people understand” the compromises necessary in a deal like this, she said. Private and public polling informs her team’s view on all this. Translating that mixture of public exasperation and support into a parliamentary majority is the trick no one is sure she can pull off.

EU leaders were showing the same message discipline in Brussels this morning that they have shown throughout most of the talks. There was a little fracturing in the closing stages of this process, including some exasperation with Spain, as it pushed for a form of words it could wave showing it still operated a veto over the future relationship.

Spain’s insistence that Gibraltar is not included in any trade deal until Spain has agreed to it underlines the challenges ahead when full-scale future relationship talks get underway. That Spanish concern is written into “statements for the minutes”, published straight after the meeting. It conveys a number of those last minute concerns of countries about the agreement. It says getting a “fisheries agreement is a matter of priority and should build on, inter alia, existing reciprocal access and quota shares.”

It also says any decision on extending the transition period “will take into account the fulfilment of obligations by the UK under the Agreement.” There’s a sense of watching out for back-sliding on commitments. It’s not an emotional farewell, and in his press conference President Macron said “it is neither an opportunity to rejoice nor a day of mourning. It’s the choice of a sovereign people. It’s a time for dignity and responsibility.”

Theresa May has now headed back to London to throw herself into the selling of the deal. At the end of last week that appeared to include a Black Friday “honours” winter clearance.

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