Macron puts the boot in after May’s Brexit breakfast blunder
Meeting with Varadkar in Salzburg over Border issue takes an unexpected wrong turn
The spin from Downing Street had been that Theresa May’s meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, shortly after breakfast in the margins of the EU summit, had been “relatively warm”, albeit “frank”.
The dawning truth later was that, in a premiership littered with missteps, May had made one of her worst errors of judgment as the two leaders met in a private room in Salzburg’s Mozarteum University.
For weeks the working assumption in Brussels had been that, on the Irish issue at least, a major step forward would be made by the next leaders’ summit in October.
But the prime minister dropped a bombshell over coffee. She did not believe it would be possible for her government and Brussels to come to a solution by then. Six months after promising to come up with a fix that would avoid a hard Irish border in all possible circumstances, she appeared to be stalling for time again.
The message reverberated around the summit and reached the ear of French president Emmanuel Macron.
The intention had been that this would be a good summit for the prime minister, giving her something to work with on the eve of a difficult Conservative party conference.
“Things didn’t happen as we expected,” an EU official admitted.
Macron ripped up the plan to offer May warm words along with an extraordinary Brexit summit on November 18th and 19th in order to finalise the terms of a Brexit deal.
During a two-hour Brexit discussion over lunch among the 27 EU leaders, Macron said May, who had already departed, should not be allowed to drag her heels. The pressure for a result needed to be increased. She was to be set a threshold that she would have to reach if she wanted a deal.
The EU’s leaders were instructed to increase their preparations for a no-deal Brexit. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, who had boasted to reporters on Thursday of being part of a growing camp of leaders opposed to “punishing the British”, did not demur.
“He did not say a word,” said a source.
After informing May of the developments in a brief and cursory meeting, Donald Tusk, the European Council president, told reporters: “The moment of truth for Brexit negotiations will be the October European council. In October we expect maximum progress and results in the Brexit talks. Then we will decide whether conditions are there to call an extraordinary summit in November to finalise and formalise the deal.”
“Don’t worry, be happy,” joked European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker after telling reporters that the Europeans had full plans in place in the event there was no deal.
A senior EU official, who could not rise to Juncker’s challenge, lamented: “This makes it more difficult. Macron and others wanted a higher degree of pressure in the negotiations and more uncertainty. But this does make things more difficult.”
Downing Street had taken some hope, understandably, from Tusk’s words the previous day when he had said that May’s Chequers proposal was indicative of an “evolution” in British thinking. In return, it was suggested the EU would evolve its position.
Now Tusk said of the leaders’ Brexit discussions: “Everybody shared the view that while there are positive elements in the Chequers proposal, the suggested framework for economic co-operation will not work. Not least because it risks undermining the single market.”
EU officials and diplomats insisted shortly afterwards that the choice of language was not designed to scupper May.
“On the indivisibility of the four freedoms, and the integrity of the single market, the position has not changed and there is absolute unity,” said one.
A second said that the very fact that Tusk and others had not dismissed Chequers in its entirety was an example of the EU being “nice”.
The proposals in their current state are not acceptable, especially on the economic side of it
After all, the official added, all May had done over dinner the evening before during a much-hyped appeal to the EU for compromise was to “read out an op-ed” she had written for that morning’s Die Welt newspaper.
If Tusk’s words were not meant to hurt, Macron’s comments surely did have menace.
“It was a good and brave step by the prime minister,” Macron said of the Chequers plan. “But we all agreed on this today, the proposals in their current state are not acceptable, especially on the economic side of it.”
With Orbán’s thinly veiled attack on his tough approach to the UK no doubt in mind, Macron added: “Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be all right, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home, are liars.”
May, despite her protestations in her own press conference that her Brexit plan remains on track, is unlikely to disagree.