Theresa May might look lonely, but cracks are showing in the EU's united front

It has taken just under six months but power tussles over Brexit plans are exposing splits among the Brussels bigwigs.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

On her way into today’s summit of EU leaders in Brussels, Theresa May dodged journalists’ questions about how long it could take Britain to negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.

The BBC reported that Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ambassador to the EU, had warned ministers that such a free trade agreement might not be finished until the early to mid-2020s.

Roger’s comments, explained away by Downing Street as reporting the views of other EU ambassadors, contrast with British politicians’ insistence a deal could be struck in the two-year negotiation period triggered by the notification of Article 50, the legal process to begin Brexit.

Any free trade deal could bring tariff-free access to the single market, without insisting on EU freedom of movement rules.

But, as a similar deal with Canada has shown, the deal would face a series of obstacles, not least having to be ratified by every parliament in the EU. Canada’s deal took seven torturous years to finish.

The alternative to a free trade deal or some other pact granting access to the single market is a hard Brexit, which would see Britain trade with the EU under WTO rules.

EU leaders were meeting to discuss Syria, migration, and defence. Brexit was only on the menu after May's departure.

Outside the council’s Justus Lipsius building May, whose first summit was a humbling experience, claimed she welcomed the fact that the EU-27 were preparing for the post-Article 50 talks without her.

“As we are going to invoke Article 50, triggering the negotiations by the end of March next year, it is right that others prepare for those negotiations as we have been preparing,” May said before ignoring calls to answer the trade question and striding into the building.

Later footage emerged of the prime minister looking lonely during the summit as EU ministers chatted and embraced around her, seemingly blind to her presence. 

 

Brexit plan exposes EU splits

Leaked documents to be backed by the EU-27 revealed, as expected, that the European Commission will only negotiate with Britain once Article 50 is triggered. Michel Barnier is to be named chief negotiator.

The commission will be joined in the room by council staff and diplomats from Malta. Malta will be the holder of the rotating presidency of the EU when talks begin, if May keeps her promise to notify Article 50, the legal process for Brexit, by the end of March.

Unlike the commission and the council, the European Parliament, which must approve the final divorce terms, doesn’t get a seat at the negotiation table.

Two of the parliament’s biggest beasts went on the warpath yesterday, demanding a bigger role in the talks. It has taken just under six months but the first cracks in the EU’s painstakingly constructed united front are starting to show.

Schulz wrote to his counterpart at the European Council, Donald Tusk, who chairs the summits of heads of state and government.

He warned that the parliament could veto the final Brexit divorce terms. MEPs will vote on whether to ratify the agreement once it is drawn up to a tight 18-month schedule.

A veto would mean the EU treaties would cease to apply to the UK at the end of the two-year period for talks foreseen in Article 50, without a new EU-UK relationship, which could include a free trade deal, being in place.

“This would be the very hardest of Brexits and to the detriment of everybody” Schulz told Tusk.

The Incredible Hof

The parliament chose the combustible Guy Verhofstadt as its Brexit boss in September. Yesterday in Strasbourg, the former prime minister of Belgium and committed federalist let rip.

"What they are proposing is that we go forward with the Brexit negotiations but without the parliament,” Verhofstadt, the leader of the ALDE Liberal group of MEPs, said. “Are they not aware that we have to approve these arrangements?”

“Do you want that we open separate negotiations with the British parliament? Is that what you want? You can get it,” he raged.

“If that is what the heads of state want, we are going to do it, parallel negotiations. I don't want it but apparently the council wants it.”

Turning on an unfortunate Council representative in the parliamentary chamber, he gave him both barrels.

“[US President Lyndon B Johnson] said once that it was better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in,” said Verhofstadt.

“Maybe that's a good reality you can recall to the European Council."

Schulz, who is stepping down to run in Germany’s elections, will address EU leaders at his final summit tomorrow and tell them to change their plans.  Failure to do so could have “grave consequences”, he told Tusk in a letter sent on behalf of the parliament’s political leaders.

His letter warned that if the parliament’s “secondary role” was confirmed this evening, it could “draw up its own detailed arrangements governing its interaction” with Barnier, and the UK government.

Parliament breaks ranks

Schulz and Verhofstadt’s threats are a long way from the bloc’s show of strength after the 23 June vote for Brexit.

After the referendum, it rapidly became clear that the European Commission, European Parliament and the remaining 27 member states of the EU had done their homework.

The country worst prepared for Brexit was Britain. It stood alone before a phalanx of EU chiefs, institutions and nations speaking with one voice.

There would be no negotiations over Brexit until Article 50 was triggered, which must happen as quickly as possible, they said.

No country or institution has gone off-message. All intoned, for example, that there could be no access to the single market without freedom of movement.

Power tussles between the council and parliament are nothing new in Brussels. The parliament became a directly elected body in 1979 in a move designed to give the EU more democratic legitimacy.

Since then it has pushed for greater influence over lawmaking, often in the face of stiff opposition from national governments in the council.

Most EU legislation drafted by the commission must now be backed by both parliament and council before it can become law.

EU diplomats have spent the week briefing journalists that the EU-27 was united on how to handle Brexit. But they failed to get the parliament on board.

It is a surprising misstep that exposed a faultline in the EU’s ranks. If it isn’t repaired over tonight’s dinner, the divisions between the three major EU institutions could widen.

 

 

James Crisp is a Brussels-based journalist who is the news editor of EurActiv.com