Barnier’s new Brexit approach unlikely to ease May’s woes
Denis Staunton: British hopes pinned on informal meeting of EU leaders later this month
European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said a Brexit deal could be done within six or eight weeks, a statement that lifted sterling. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters
Monday at Westminster began with a little sunbeam of hope about Brexit in the shape of a Financial Times headline promising “Relief for May as Barnier set for go-ahead to pin down Brexit deal”. Michel Barnier offered more cheer later in the day when he said a Brexit deal could be done within six or eight weeks, a statement that lifted sterling.
After a weekend of stories about Boris Johnson’s personal life and some overblown outrage about his use of a suicide vest metaphor, here was some good news at last. The EU leaders were about to give Barnier fresh instructions, telling him to stop being so legalistic and inflexible and to offer Theresa May a deal she could get through parliament.
Or maybe not.
On closer examination, the Financial Times story said only that Barnier would receive a new negotiating mandate and it quoted sources warning that there was unlikely to be a significant softening of the EU’s approach. Barnier’s own statement later also fell short of a breakthrough, referring only to the withdrawal agreement and not the political declaration on the future relationship between Britain and the EU.
British hopes remain pinned on an informal meeting of EU leaders in Salzburg on September 20th, when the prime minister will make the case for Chequers directly to the other EU leaders. The format will, however, be the same as in previous summits with May making a statement and then leaving before the others talk about Brexit among themselves.
There will be no documents at the meeting and it will not produce official conclusions, so any formal movement on Brexit will have to wait until the October summit. Still, the noises that emerge from Salzburg are likely to be comforting enough for May to face her party at its annual conference in Birmingham a week later and to claim that her Chequers plan is still alive.
Last night’s poorly attended debate on the EU Withdrawal and Implementation Bill illustrated the prime minister’s difficulty as Conservative Brexiteers lined up to condemn Chequers and to complain even about the terms of a post-Brexit transition period.
Her Chequers proposal cannot command a majority in the House of Commons and Labour is almost certain to vote against any deal she presents to parliament. This leaves May back where she has always found herself, spending as much energy negotiating with her own party as with her interlocutors in Brussels.