8 Nov 2018

Tusk on Brexit deal: “maybe 5, maybe 6, maybe 7 days” to go

To get a different perspective on Brexit I have come to Helsinki and to the conference of the EPP right of centre parties in Europe.

It’s dank, grey with low visibility here so in some ways the perspective is rather familiar.

I asked European Council President Donald Tusk if there could be a deal within a week. He said: “I hope so … but still we need maybe 5, maybe 6, maybe 7 days.”

Michel Barnier said: “We need more time to work, we need more time.” Leo Varadkar said “we are making progress.” But when I asked him if there would be a deal within a week he replied: “Longer than that.”

You sense some countries, including some in Eastern Europe, think a temporary customs arrangement is a big deal you don’t commit to lightly. They want details nailed down and are not willing to rush to a special weekend November summit to satisfy UK convenience.

Bokyo Borissov, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister said: “I don’t think it will be a quick solution.”

Gathered here in Helsinki is the establishment of the European Union. It is depleted, now down to running 8 of the 28 countries of the EU, but it still runs the institutions.

The conference hall is a vast and glitzy affair with a lavish wrap-around screen that bubbles up with tweeted selfies next to giant images of the speakers. But it sometimes feels like modern fonts wrapped around a party grouping that isn’t sure how modern it wants to be.

The threat of populism threaded through the contest at the heart of this gathering: who does the EPP want to put up to replace Jean-Claude Juncker when he stands down next year? Manfred Weber, German MEP and head of the EPP group in the European Parliament, talked about borders and fear of migrants in his closing address in the contest for the top job. He’s from the CSU the Bavarian (and more conservative) sister party of Chancellor Merkel’s CDU. His biggest round of applause came when he said Turkey must never be allowed to join. He was pressing certain familiar buttons. His rival, former MEP and former Finnish  PM Alex Stubb, went for a more positive, optimistic approach with a speech that could have been delivered at a gathering of the Liberal parties of the EU. He said the populists must be taken head on. Weber won the contest 79% to 21%.

This is a congress at which younger women regularly introduce older and suited white men to the stage.  Michel Barnier was introduced as the man who is working “tirelessly” for us at the EU on Brexit. Please give him a warm welcome, was the introductory line. But apart from a line at the beginning in which he warned “there is now a Farage in every country,” Michel Barnier’s address was a broader sweep on EU matters (with a sideswipe at President Macron’s so-it-alone political party) and it quickly lost the attention of the hall. Conversations broke out, people milled, the German Chancellor got down from the stage and started chats with people sitting in the front row of the audience.

Despite Mr Barnier’s point about cloned Nigel Farages around Europe, populism has not had the predicted shot in the arm from Brexit. Some of the populist parties of the EU are doing very well and look like they could break records for their performance in next year’s European Parliament elections. But they will do so while steering clear of the Brexit example. It is not thought to be going sufficiently well to make it a campaign asset and has been pretty much banished from mainstream campaign messaging. The populists are beating drums on immigration and anti-elite messaging and not the “let’s follow Britain out” approach which some of them have happily whistled in the past.

One populist happily marches around this Congress: Victor Orban’s party slipped into the ranks when they were opened up to new Eastern European parties. I asked Mr Orban if he felt welcome here and he insisted he did as he led the most successful party in the hall. A little later the European Council President Donald Tusk berated those (they weren’t named but you could work out who he had in mind) who tolerate racism, attack the press etc … “you are not a Christian Democrat.”

Listening to the EPP Congress debates you are struck by how far down the EU agenda Brexit is. It is, in the mantra much repeated, a process to be managed. Whether it ends up in a closer relationship than some predicted, the temporary customs arrangement becoming the kernel of something more permanent and more  binding than many suspect, is exactly what is potentially slowing the last moments of the negotiation down.

You’re also struck here by how many political figures, including the CSU MEP who just won 79% of the EPP vote, are articulating concerns on migration that sound very close to those that motivated some of the Brexit voters in the UK two years ago.

And there’s one other abiding impression of this gathering: there were no headphones under the seats and the vast majority of the proceedings were conducted in English.

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