May ambushed by Salzburg setback
This was a summit that was supposed to make life easier for Theresa May. The EU would signal things were moving in the right direction, a timely boost ahead of Tory Conference. A November summit deadline would be announced (plenty of officials had the week of November 12 in their diaries). A roll-out of hard selling building up to a Commons vote would then follow.
We filmed Theresa May around mid-day as she said goodbye to the EU leaders filing in for their discussion about her Brexit plan. She was excluded from the meeting that started just after they’d all lined up for a photo all as the 28. Out the back of the building where the meetings are held she hovered for a while to do some air kiss diplomacy. President Macron amongst those to get a personal greeting. The hope must’ve been to make a last good impression before the 27 leaders met without her. It doesn’t seem to have worked.
Instead of a step forward in the process, the meeting ended with one of the UK’s putative allies in this battle, Donald Tusk, kicking the Chequers deal at his end of the summit press conference. The European Council President said it would not work. The Dutch Premier, touted by some in Whitehall as another ally in the room, said he was no more optimistic about getting a Brexit deal after this summit.
Salzburg was meant to be a moment when the national leaders started to take back some control of the Brexit process from the Commission, softened the tone, named the date for a November summit with a view to compromises on both sides moving the whole.
The best guess of one official was that the European leaders simply hadn’t focused and had decided to take the lead from Commission figures who devote more of their time to this particular pile of the messy in-tray. Theresa May dismissed it as “tactics” in the press conference that followed the end of the summit. One source said it was “hardball.” The problem is, having been surprised by this moment, they can’t be 100% sure when the hardball stops. Maybe it won’t stop. Maybe the EU leaders meant it all along when they said (most of them) that the EUs rules couldn’t be cherry picked.
There were suggestions that the talks in private with Donald Tusk were better than the public words, likewise the conversations Theresa May had with Chancellor Merkel and President Macron. The only really dud chat of the trip, one official suggested, was the breakfast meeting with Leo Varadkar. Sometimes, the official said, “chemistry between leaders” can “close up gaps” that help towards agreement. This, the official said, is most definitely not one of those relationships. The meetings don’t seem to help. They might even hinder.
The Salzburg summit has given ammunition to Theresa May’s enemies when their arsenal was already overflowing. Political leaders hate surprises and Theresa May had a nasty one in Salzburg. She has little time and dwindling resources to get her balance back.