20 Oct 2017

Warmer words intended to bolster May as she returns to Westminster

The European Council President has put a positive gloss on Brexit in his end of summit press conference. Donald Tusk said reports of deadlock were exaggerated.

It was then pointed out out to him that the word came from Michel Barnier and he’d used it three times.

Ah, Mr Tusk said, he’s the negotiator and I’ve got a different job. He squirmed a little uncomfortably but even more so when the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, standing next to him, piped up that he would happily use the word deadlock four times, not three. It was all a bit of a mess and the press conference was fairly short.

Theresa May’s press conference was quite brief too – only four UK journalists were called, quite a low tally for this sort of event. She said: “I’ll call two more questions from European media”, which prompted a couple of us to comment that we thought were all Europeans. She laughed and said she meant “non-British media”.

At his press conference, President Macron said that Theresa May hadn’t been talking about “no deal” when she addressed the other leaders and he thought that sort of talk was coming from people who weren’t in charge of the negotiations: secondary figures or media voices, it was “bluff” or “fake news” from unimportant characters. It was a similar point to the one made by Jean-Claude Juncker, who said that no-one from the British government had explained to him what “no deal” really was. The word “bluff” is bound to ignite headlines but the French President was quite careful not to use it about British policy.

In her press conference, Theresa May made pointed reference to how Britain post Brexit intended to be a strongly regulated economy committed to consumer rights, in other words a perfect trading partner for the EU and one whose like-mindedness should be reflected in easy trade relations.

Mrs May wouldn’t be drawn on what she meant by “Florence was not the last word”, a phrase she used addressing the EU27 over dinner last night. EU leaders appear to be in no doubt it meant that Mrs May was ready to cough up billions more. Asked whether she would match the 60 billion euros bill the EU was thinking of, Mrs May said she would be going through the bill line by line.

The last time the UK went through the Brexit bill line by line it became a celebrated moment in Brussels diplomatic history, A young Treasury official did a presentation that spread over two days and effectively drew a big black line through much of the EU Brexit bill, questioning the legal underpinning of almost every item. The next iteration of this process looks like being a bit more conciliatory.

After having to fold on sequencing in the talks process and then on transition, the PM now finds herself contemplating folding on the bill.

The warmer words from Donald Tusk, Angela Merkel and some others here, emphasising hopes for the future over fear of failure, sounded like they were intended to help bolster Theresa May as she returns to Westminster. Many here in Brussels are under no illusions how difficult it could be for Theresa May to deliver what they are asking for.

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