17 Oct 2018

EU summit – Barnier calls for calm

Theresa May has 30 minutes to outline her case to EU leaders tonight. She will not be coming with “new concrete proposals” as Donald Tusk requested. Her team were stretched to the limit only 3 days ago trying to work out how to upgrade the UK’s preferred backstop arrangement into something that can be guaranteed to happen (even if every detail can’t be negotiated now) and she is now under massive backbench and ministerial pressure to guarantee that it is also something that can definitely be ended when the UK wishes.

I suspect the Prime Minister will emphasise the complexity of the detailed negotiating points that are holding up talks right now. If she does, she will do that partly because it is true but also perhaps to deflect attention from weakness of a national leader bounced around in a minority government by ministers, ex-ministers and noisy backbencher who openly proclaim that they don’t trust her.

There was what sounded like a hint of how Mrs May might deal with that issue of guaranteeing that such a Customs Union arrangement is temporary – how to have a “break clause” in the language used by officials – in her Commons statement on Monday. Choosing her words with her usual care, Theresa May told MPs: “If the EU were not to co-operate on our future relationship, we must be able to ensure that we cannot be kept in this backstop arrangement indefinitely.”

Michel Barnier made conciliatory remarks as he arrived at the European Council. The EU leaders will take their tone from him as part of their pattern of sticking together. Many feel that Salzburg was unnecessarily harmful to the Brexit process because some leaders let their impatience show with the UK. Michel Barnier spoke about needing calmness and patience this evening and will repeat that message when he gives his summary of the talks to the EU27.

He also spoke about needing “much more time,” which could be seen by some as a nod towards the idea he floated with EU27 ministers earlier this week that the UK might extend its time in “transition” beyond the end of 2020. The UK would be outside of the meeting room, voiceless in the EU but still paying full subs and taking EU laws and regulations. That could appeal to the EU (inter alia) as a way of avoiding having to bend on their own stance that a UK-wide temporary customs arrangement needs a much longer period of negotiation than a footnote in the Article 50 Agreement. Mrs May though might think her nightmares knew no end if she had to persuade Tory ministers and backbencher that a longer spell in what they see as purgatory was necessary.

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