Long hot summer ahead as Brexit negotiations drag on
Varadkar struggles to sound optimistic in Brussels while EU’s focus shifts to other matters
French president Emmanuel Macron greets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during a breakfast meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, on Friday. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/PA
For months it was billed as the “Brexit showdown”.
The June summit of EU leaders in Brussels was the point at which the UK would have to demonstrate movement on a series of Brexit issues, chief among them the Irish Border.
Otherwise, Irish and EU leaders warned, the negotiations would be in trouble. A withdrawal agreement, due to be completed by the autumn, would be in doubt. That meant the transition period sought by the UK – allowing it to ease itself out of the EU after next March, rather than leaving all of a sudden – would become uncertain.
Were such a thing to happen it would cause consternation in London, as the UK was brought face-to-face with tumbling out of the EU next March.
And yet, the British declined to co-operate. There would be no British proposals on the Border or the future relationship, London made clear, until it was in a position to make them. The UK would not dance to the EU’s tune. It would make its proposals when it was ready to do so. Brexit business continued, but at a snail’s pace.
As a group of Irish officials waited for their bags at Brussels airport early on Thursday morning, one senior mandarin who works on Brexit was asked if he was busy these days. “Not really,” was the reply. “I wish I was.”
Ireland had wanted to avoid a situation where the Border ended up as one of several issues to be thrashed out at five-to-midnight as deadlines loomed in the autumn. But that’s exactly what Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney now face. There’s just no getting away from that.
Varadkar donned a Belgium scarf. Everyone was on Belgium’s side. Nobody was cheering for England
So in recent weeks, the focus of the summit moved to migration into the EU, as a new anti-immigration Italian government found its feet and German chancellor Angela Merkel, still Europe’s most important political leader, came under unprecedented domestic political pressure on the same issue.
The switch in focus was evident as the EU leaders arrived for the summit on Thursday, traversing the long red carpet in the Europa building to make their way for a few words with their national media. Few spoke about Brexit. The Irish understand this; it’s not clear the British do. Europe is getting over Brexit. They have other things to be getting on with.
Going into the summit, one reporter asked the Hungarian prime minister, the authoritarian anti-immigrant Victor Orban, why he persisted in speaking about an “invasion” when there were hardly any migrants coming into Hungary.
“Come to the border,” Orban told him.
“I went to the border, there is no one there,” the reporter replied.
“Because there is a border,” responded Orban.
The truth is that Europe’s leaders are having to accommodate themselves to the fact that in many of their countries, there is no support for admitting large numbers of migrants from Africa. They know that if they don’t address the issue, politicians who will address it – one way or another – will be elected. That, more than Brexit, or Trump, or trade, or budgets, is what this summit was about.
Meanwhile, the adjacent Justus Lipsius building, where press and officials were gathering, went into temporary lockdown. Access to the building was shut down – nobody in, nobody out. Police clambered down manholes but emerged a few minutes later shrugging and shaking heads.
The security alert didn’t keep out the former Ukip leader – and the man who more than anyone else made Brexit a reality – Nigel Farage, who buzzed about from interview to interview in the vast atrium that housed the hundreds of journalists accredited for the summit.
For someone who wants to destroy the EU, he seems remarkably addicted to EU summits. The European Parliament, of course, pays his salary.
The Irish Border? “It’s the biggest nonsense of all,” he said. “There’s a lot of Euroscepticism in Ireland,” he told Irish reporters. “Always has been, always has been.”
And Farage was withering about Varadkar. “The ultimate Yes man in Brussels,” he said. But Farage is a marginal figure these days, even in the UK. His work is done. It’s left to others to pick up the pieces.
Two events dominated Thursday night – the EU leaders’ dinner, and the England-Belgium World Cup match. Journalists tried to make the game a metaphor for the summit, or even for the Brexit process, with limited success.
More telling perhaps were the photos released from inside the summit room, which showed Belgian prime minister Charles Michel present British prime minister Theresa May with a Belgium jersey.
Varadkar donned a Belgium scarf. Everyone was on Belgium’s side. Nobody was cheering for England. British officials later claimed they had a jersey for Michel too, but were ambushed by the Belgians. Nothing seems to be working out as they hoped.
When the match starts, the leaders’ dinner is ongoing; they won’t be out for many hours yet. The bars around the EU quarter are packed; Farage and the Ukip MEPs bray their way to the Place du Luxembourg, but quieten over the evening as England go down to a 1-0 defeat. In the press bar at the summit venue, there is a quiet smattering of applause when the final whistle goes. Perhaps it is because the Belgians are not a passionate nation; perhaps everyone realises it will be duller when the English are not around.
Before the dinner, there was a brief bilateral meeting involving Varadkar and May. Their personal relations are said to be not good, but officials insist cordiality and business was the order of the day. Varadkar restated his requirements on Brexit; May told him proposals are forthcoming. They agreed to resuscitate the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on the North, which the Irish have been seeking for months. Some progress, perhaps, but not on Brexit.
At the dinner, meanwhile, things were not going well. The new Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conti, attending his first summit after taking power on a pledge to stop the boats packed with African migrants arriving in Italy, blocks agreement on anything until the leaders agree a package of measures to address the migration crisis.
This is not how the summits work, council president Donald Tusk explains to him. This is not the procedure. Conti doesn’t care. He is, after all, in government with the Five Star movement, whose slogan is “Vaffanculo!” (“F**k off”).
As the session dragged on into the early hours, exasperation with the Italians grew. Conte told the group he was unimpressed at the way it managed its business. He was speaking, he said, as a former lawyer.
The Swede Stefan Lofven piped up. He was speaking as a former welder. The Bulgarian Boyko Borissov said he was a former fireman. He is also a former bodyguard, karate coach and footballer. Though he didn’t mention that.
At 4.35am, having hammered out a compromise that was half resolution and half aspiration, bleary-eyed EU leaders shuffled out into the Brussels dawn. Borissov said they should establish a trade union to defend their rights not to work extra-long hours.
The leaders were whizzed back to their hotels for a few hours’ sleep before Friday’s session started, albeit a few hours late. The young guns – Varadkar, Sebastian Kurz of Austria, Emmanuel Macron, Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg – bounded in; the old guard looked less lively. After the tortuous Thursday evening/Friday morning session, nobody was in any mood for hanging around. They rattled through the agenda, including matters related to Brexit. Chief negotiator Michel Barnier briefed the leaders on “some progress on some areas” – but none on others, including the Irish Border.
After 2pm, Tusk and commission president Jean-Claude Juncker hosted the end-of-summit press conference with Borissov, marking the end of the six-month Bulgarian presidency.
He milked the moment, droning on and on in Bulgarian about the achievements of the presidency. Tusk looked on impassively; Juncker looked like a man who needed a gin and tonic. Finally, it was time for questions. The first questioner took the microphone. “What was the biggest achievement of the Bulgarian presidency?”
Varadkar held his own press conference. He tried to sound optimistic about Brexit, but failed. The EU seems set to reject the forthcoming British white paper. He told Mrs May, he said, that there was “no point” in putting forward something that was incompatible with single market rules.
“While we really regret the fact that the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union,” he said, “we’re not going to let them destroy the European Union.” A long hot summer is in store.