22 Mar 2018

PM and Putin compete in EU charm offensive

As the European Council meets in Brussels, yet again the Brexit issue is shoved to the moment chairs scrape and attention drifts at the dog end of the evening.

Mrs May will have her say – the transition deal is in both our interests, the guidelines for negotiations on the future relationship are welcomed – but the EU won’t negotiate in front of her.

They have the opportunity for a freer discussion tomorrow morning once Mrs May has left Brussels. But they may not take long over the issue having already agreed at official level that the transition should go ahead and the negotiating guidelines are signed off.

Mrs May’s main focus tonight will be trying to get a statement of support from the EU for Britain’s accusation that Russia is responsible for the Salisbury attacks.

On the basis of some of the words uttered by leaders on their way in to today’s meeting, Mrs May is not going to get the communique text strengthened as much as she would like.

Countries like Greece, Austria, Hungary and Italy are amongst those who don’t want to point the finger of guilt at the Russian state. British officials have been briefing EU partners with intelligence on what they think happened in Salisbury and exactly where the nerve agent came from. But the level of intelligence shared will vary enormously depending on the closeness of the intelligence agencies’ relationship.

Meanwhile, the Russian state has been conducting its own charm offensive. At least three  EU leaders spoke personally to President Putin on the phone this morning. The Greek Prime Minister’s conversation is said  to have strayed from congratulations on the recent elections in Russia to the Salisbury attacks.

In London, the Russian Ambassador said he had been speaking to EU ambassadors there. Similar efforts have been made across Europe.

At the ALDE meeting of Liberal Party leaders from across Europe, Sir Vince Cable turned up and proclaimed that after the gathering that he’d got the support of the room including  8 Prime Ministers for the “Liberal Democrats’ call for the British people to have the final say on the Brexit deal.”

I asked the Dutch Prime Minister if he was signed up to the Lib Dem policy and Mr Rutte did indeed seem a little uncomfortable insisting that he wasn’t interfering in British politics but he understood that the Lib Dem’s were trying to make sure that the debate on the EU continues in the UK.

The ALDE group barely an hour later issued a denial of the Lib Dem press notice saying no such statement had been authorised (and, for the record, not all 8 Prime Ministers quoted in the Lib Dem statement actually made it into the room).

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