23 Mar 2018

May finds renewed EU support over Russia and Brexit negotiations

Yesterday Theresa May wanted EU unity on Russia. On Brexit, following the adoption of new EU guidelines on the future relationship with Britain, she wants division.

Think of all the rhetoric you heard in the 2016 referendum about how this sector of that EU country will never allow its leaders to restrict or harm its trade with the U.K.

The moment has now arrived to put that into practice and see how much the EU is willing to bend, under pressure of member states, to the U.K. government’s will. It’s fair to say that in Brussels that notion is widely mocked. Talks are due to start in April.

The No. 10 team left Brussels feeling that on Russia they got more than some had thought possible. The language in the final communique was significantly tougher than the foreign ministers’ draft produced earlier in the week and in talks that stretched on until 1am, EU leaders lined up behind Britain’s analysis that the culprit for the Salisbury attacks was Moscow. Even Moscow allies like Hungary could see where the discussion was going and yielded to the majority view.

Some in No. 10 are daring to hope this is an omen of how the EU could turn out to be a more flexible partner post Brexit and will realise, as one aide said, that we are “stronger together.” I would be careful about trying that particular line on the EU if I was in the British team at in the talks.

Quite whether and by what mechanism the UK could get this kind of cooperation after Brexit is a matter for those talks.

At their joint press conference, President Tusk and President Juncker revealed that the Brexit section of the talks was polished off in 30 seconds. They were keen to trumpet the EU28’s unanimous agreement on what President Tusk said were the 4 big issues in front of them: Trump, Turkey, Putin and Brexit (it sounded a bit like the four horsemen of the apocalypse).

But there was a notably different tone on how to take on President Trump’s approach to trade talks: threaten then summon and demand concessions. President Macron said the EU would not negotiate with a gun to its head. The two EU Presidents were nothing like so strident. Will the EU say the US-imposed deadline (May 1st) has to go before talks can start? It’s not yet clear.

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