20 Sep 2018

Hungarian PM Orban: I’m in the British camp on Brexit

Political Editor

Michel Barnier has gone into the conference centre in Salzburg to brief EU leaders on how the Brexit talks are going. Mrs May is leaving for this section of the summit. She will be hoping, in her absence, that Mr Barnier gets some push-back from countries that lean closer to the UK position.

The Dutch and the Belgians know they have significant economic interest in avoiding no deal and in keeping ties as close as possible. But their Prime Ministers were pretty balanced in their words on their way into the summit this morning, expressing support for Michel Barnier’s work.

The only full-throated support for the Theresa May position came from Victor Orban. It’s not clear whether he’s a bit of a repelling magnet if you’re trying to build up support in the room at these summits. I asked the Hungarian Prime Minister if he thought there was a danger the EU27 were trying to punish the British. Mr Orban said: “It’s a very general approach (amongst the EU27) but we have a camp, quite a number of countries, who will … some others like Hungary who don’t like that kind of approach and we would like to have a fair Brexit.” He broke off to greet a friendly President Macron mid-answer but you notice at these gatherings how often the man accused of breaching the very principles at the heart of Western democracies looks friendless, walking on his own. One Austrian reporter next to me asked Mr Orban: ”How do you like it in the West?” “Hungary is part of the West, I am living there, I like it.

Mr Orban’s next answer showed how far outside EU summit norms of behaviour he is. He was asked what the solution to the immigration crisis was and answered: “Don’t let them in and those who are in send home. That’s so simple.”

The expected announcement of a date for the emergency summit to close a deal on Brexit suggests officials see a reasonable possibility of the two sides “docking,” in the jargon used by officials. The EU would not be putting a date in leaders’ busy diaries without hope of a deal even if that involves elements of fudge.

A declaration on the future relationship that stays quite woolly and doesn’t get too pinned down on the detail could be part of that. The Croatian Prime Minister told me this morning that he thought the declaration would tell us “some of the contours” of the future, not necessarily a huge amount more.

But it’s hard to see how the EU27 would want to make any judgement call on whether to go down that route until Theresa May has got through Tory Conference. Leaders here seem to have learnt a lot about Theresa May’s  diary and her political predicament.

There are persistent noises that a version of the EU backstop (Northern Ireland stays under Single Market and Customs Union rules) and the British backstop (whole UK pretty much stays in customs union until such time as a different deal is shaken on with the EU) could somehow co-exist.

Salzburg won’t have settled any of those big questions. Theresa May will hope that it helps to get her some movement on EU positions further down the line.