Brexit and beyond: EU ready to move on even if Britain cannot

EU summit diary


The security checks at Heathrow Airport are divided into three lanes: the United Kingdom and Ireland, Europe, and then International. Brexit metaphors are everywhere, if one wishes to look and one does not have to look hard.

The ground staff – entirely of Afro-Carribean or Asian background, as it happens – manage the queues of impatient travellers with good humour and (most of the time) efficiency. They’ll be in the frontline of taking back control, when it happens. You’d wonder are they ready for it.

Brussels wants an even more craven surrender from Theresa May tonight,” thunders the Sun, free for British Airways travellers. “Are they for real?”

On a Brussels-bound British Airways flight, passengers can see the white cliffs of Dover, though it’s too far to see if there are blue birds over them. However, those same passengers could easily see the volume of shipping traffic across the channel below – ships carrying the billions of pounds and euro of trade between the UK and the Europe.

From Germany they carry Mercedes and BMWs and Audis and Volkswagens to one of their most important markets. Brexiteers insisted that the German government – at the behest of its massive car industry – would insist that the EU rushed to make a trade deal on favourable terms with Brexit Britain.

So far, they have misunderstood how important the EU is to Germany – it is the vehicle (sorry) for preserving the post-war settlement in Europe and avoiding a repeat of the catastrophes of the last century. That has been the greatest priority of every generation of German politicians since the war, and they are willing to sacrifice anything to preserve it, do anything to defend it. Germany loves selling cars to the UK. But it is not more important to it than protecting the EU.

Now British car manufacturers warn they will move abroad, or stall production if there is a no-deal Brexit. The Brexiteers respond by telling car industry bosses how to run their businesses.

On the BA flight, the sachets of milk come from Lakeland dairies in Killeshandra, Co Cavan. The milk has probably crossed the Border several times.

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EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Same tune but mood music changes

Theresa May had been invited to speak to her 27 non-Brexiting colleagues for 30 minutes before the summit dinner on Wednesday evening. In the event, she spoke for 15 minutes, stressing that she believed a deal was possible, pledged that the UK would work to achieve one, and sought compromise and co-operation from the EU side. EU leaders, officials said, listened respectfully. Everyone wanted to avoid a repeat of the Salzburg summit last month, when May was sent away with a flea in her ear, to subsequent outrage in London.

This time the leaders, and the vast entourage of officials, handlers, diplomats and spin-doctors that accompanies them, ensured that the mood music was more harmonious. But turn off the music and it was clear that the EU leader believed that progress was slow and unsatisfactory. When Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, finished his presentation to the leaders, they banged the table in approval and appreciation.

The Irish Times card

Theresa May said her piece and left, and EU leaders then discussed the Brexit talks – including, according to several informed sources, the difficulties faced by May in getting a deal approved by her party and her parliament, though on record questions are met with official denials. But as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar acknowledged at his summit press conference the following day, “We’re all politicians.” They can also all read the papers. They understand the pressure May is under. But their view is: that’s her problem. Safeguarding the EU’s interests is ours.

The Taoiseach also brought a copy of that day’s Irish Times into the meeting, showing it to his fellow diners to underscore Ireland’s real concerns about the trouble a return of any border could present. This is what happened the last time we had customs posts in Ireland,” he told them.

“Despicable, low and rotten,” responded Sammy Wilson, the DUP MP. “Scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

But it made everyone in Brussels sit up and take notice.

Knotty problem

In the round of press conferences that followed the summit’s principal session on Thursday, EU leaders seemed weary of answering questions about Brexit. “That question is too complicated to for me,” said Donald Tusk wearily at one point during his conference with Jean Claude Juncker, the Commission chief. “I think it’s for Jean Claude.”

Earlier Tusk had compared the Brexit negotiations with unravelling the Gordian Knot. But the Knot wasn’t unravelled. Alexander the Great cut it with his sword. A swift cutting of the cord is what the hard Brexiteers desire. Theresa May, conscious of the extreme economic dislocation it would cause, strains for a deal. Michel Barnier says they need more time to work it out. But time is getting short, and patience is wearing thin.

EU moving on

A vast and energetic British press corps interrogated every angle, every nugget of information, rumour and supposition, every leak, every dead end.

They swarmed around one senior official who delivered an impromptu briefing in the atrium of the conference venue. Were leaders concerned about the DUP? That’s a matter for Theresa May. Would the UK have to continue paying into the EU budget if the transition was extended? We haven’t even considered that yet. Was May standing up when she spoke? No, she was sitting down. Did leaders roll their eyes when she spoke? Not at all. Were the leaders sitting more closely together, or farther apart? What? Come on, pleaded one, I’ve to get 500 words out of this.

The truth is Europe is moving on from Brexit. It’s got other things going on. EU leaders are getting impatient – they want a deal done, says one senior official. Many of them don’t care all that much what’s in the deal. They just want it done. A source who was briefed on the dinner says that only 11 of the leaders spoke during the discussion about Brexit.

The British – and the Irish, if the truth be told – are understandably fixated on Brexit to a degree that is not replicated in the rest of Europe. The summit discussed other issues – migration, security, Eurozone reform, the Italian budget – that many EU countries believe are more important than Brexit. The British don’t seem to understand this.

On Friday morning, as Asian leaders arrived for the EU-Asia summit, a British journalist shouted questions. The Indian vice-president Venkaiah Naidu emerged from his car and proceeded at a stately pace across the red carpet towards the entrance. “Are you going to do a trade deal with Britain after Brexit?” the journalist cried “What do you think of Brexit, sir?”

If there is an Indian look that conveys “I don’t give a crap about Brexit”, Naidu was wearing it just them. He continued without answering. Standing by, an EU official watched the scene and muttered half to himself.

“They think the whole world is fixated on Brexit.”