May trying to strike right note at EU leaders’ travelling roadshow

Salzburg summit largely a Brexit stocktaking exercise ahead of October

British prime minister Theresa May, in Salzburg, Austria, on Wednesday. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg

British prime minister Theresa May, in Salzburg, Austria, on Wednesday. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg

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“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

European leaders’ travelling roadshow pitched up on Wednesday all too briefly in the most picturesque of Austria’s Alpine cities, Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart.

And so, pace Wolfgang, it would seem apposite – even journalistically mandatory – to misquote the master on the similar musical cadences of the EU summits process.

Despite the razzmatazz, in reality almost all of the agenda and decisions of summits have been crafted and shaped beforehand, their conclusions, formulated, Is dotted and Ts crossed by silent diplomats. Even at an “informal”, when there are not supposed to be any decisions anyway.

So we can predict with some confidence that there will be no breakthrough on Brexit. Theresa May will have addressed EU leaders on Wednesday night and urged on them the flexibility she will have said she has manifested in her Chequers proposals.

And today, over lunch, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier will again brief the 27 others on the stalled state of play of negotiations, Ms May having departed. In the words of European Council president Donald Tusk’s widely circulated letter of invitation, they will then“reconfirm the need for a legally operational backstop on Ireland, so as to be sure that there will be no hard Border in the future”.

Breaking with the policy of not taking decisions, they will then agree to his suggestion – perhaps with demurs from the Irish – that they need to give the Brexit talks a little more time, so they will come together again in November. October’s “moment of truth”, in Michel Barnier’s words, will just be “a moment of truth”.

Difficult discussion

But the 27 will also start an important and difficult discussion on the shape and scope of the political declaration on the future EU-UK relationship which is supposed to accompany the final legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement when it is agreed in November.

This will set the tone and parameters of the talks that can only begin when the UK is no longer a member.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives for an European People’s Party (EPP) leaders meeting in Salzburg on Thursday. Photograph: Andreas Schaad/EPA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives for an European People’s Party (EPP) leaders meeting in Salzburg on Thursday. Photograph: Andreas Schaad/EPA

The UK – which has shown its hand in the form of its Chequers white paper – hopes that the declaration can be general and probably largely aspirational, to be filled out by talks after they depart at the end of March. There is no time for it to be more, they are saying.

Ms May will, however, want some political cover to justify what may be a controversial backstop U-turn. Kind words about the potential of Chequers would be nice, but unrealistic.

Mindful of the experience of last December’s joint agreement in which, under the imperative of getting further talks moving, May was persuaded to give a solemn promise – instantly regretted – to guarantee a backstop for Northern Ireland, London will be anxious to avoid further hostages to fortune in the political declaration. Solemn and binding commitments are out, not least because they would involve dangerous political juggling back home.

The 27 leaders are likely to want more solid commitments.

Progress

And then there will be two related discussions on progress made – or not made – in implementing the June summit’s ideas on external and internal security.

Three years after the culmination of the migration crisis, the arrivals on all three main Mediterranean migratory routes are down by 92 per cent. But the migration crisis has become a political crisis pitching Italy’s radical new government with Hungary into battle against the northern states over how to stem illegal migration.

Leaders will get reports from the Austrian presidency on progress made – slow – since the fractious June summit on developing the idea of reception centres in third countries and dedicated disembarkation points in the EU where asylum seekers would be quickly processed.

They will also discuss commission proposals to beef up the EU’s Border Agency by 10,000 staff, with some member states sceptical about the need and demanding changes of governance to the agency. Commission proposals to legally require online platforms to take down terrorist content within an hour of notification will also be debated.

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