Brexit summit shows shifting EU strategies
Despite divisions and posturing, Europe remains united on the need to avoid a no-deal exit
European Council president Donald Tusk, British prime minister Theresa May and German chancellor Angela Merkel talk at a meeting in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Leon Neal - Pool/Getty Images
Broad agreement that the UK would get an extension to article 50 of undetermined length, and that British prime minister Theresa May’s engagement with the opposition Labour Party constituted evidence of a new approach on Brexit, narrowed the discussion at the EU summit dinner on Wednesday night to two key issues: the duration of an extension, and if and how to police British pledges of good behaviour if it remains a member.
Ahead of the meeting in Brussels there were still differences in EU capitals about the leaders’ approach to the length of any extension, though they were expected to rally around European Council president Donald Tusk’s call to give the UK up to a year, with the opportunity to leave as soon as a majority is achieved for the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons.
Within the Tusk camp there were distinct views about whether the extension should last until March 2020 or end at the end of 2019.
Tusk was supported by, among others, the Irish, the Dutch and the Germans, while the Austrians, EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and, to a lesser extent, the French held out for the shorter extension May had asked for. As one diplomat put it, the differences were entirely tactical and no one was willing to die on the ditch for any one option – the key, all agreed, was to ensure that a no-deal scenario was put back.
What was evident was a significant shift in the appraisal by member states of the key strategic objective of increasing pressure on the Commons to vote through a deal.
Until recently, EU member states accepted the longstanding May logic that MPs would come round to her deal eventually when confronted with a deadline narrowing their choices to a no-deal Brexit or her package.
In the end it clearly did not work – there remained no majority for any positive policy and the Commons took control of the agenda from the prime minister.
Tusk began to argue that they were unnecessarily boxing themselves in, that the EU had an interest in facilitating May, however long that took, and, above all, the union must not be seen to be forcing the UK out. As one senior EU diplomat said on Wednesday: “The time has come for us to take control of the extension debate.”
Although the longer extension would cause political difficulties for May, the flexibility provision, allowing the UK to leave as soon as a deal is done, would help her to cover her flank.
The other concern that leaders faced on Wednesday night was what constitutes “sincere co-operation”, the good behaviour pledge mentioned by May in her letter last week to Tusk. Although a tweet by Jacob Rees-Mogg, suggesting that if the UK were still in the union it could – and should – wage a campaign of obstruction, attracted much attention in Brussels, diplomats say the issue of how to enforce sincere co-operation was already on the agenda.
Most play down the concerns.
Emmanuel Macron has spoken about attaching strict conditions to any extension, although all member states accept that it is legally not possible to deny member states their full rights. Diplomatic sources also suggested they expected May to expand on her voluntary promise by specifically pledging not to wield vetoes on the budget or appointments.
Responding to concerns that May might not be able to bind a more disruptive successor, Dutch and European Council sources insisted that a close examination of the agenda for the next nine months revealed little by way of key votes that could be disrupted.
A source close to Tusk said that even in the delicate budget negotiations, operated by unanimity, a British veto if it was wielded could easily be circumvented. The remaining 27 could simply meet as 27 informally, and take decisions that could then be formalised after the obstructive British left.
Votes on the key personnel appointments, like the presidents of the commission and council, are taken by qualified majority vote, so could not be derailed by a single member state.
The source said that, contrary to the general wisdom, UK involvement in EU business over the last two years showed no record of an inclination to disruptiveness.