Why a 2005 promise by David Cameron could spell disaster for Theresa May and Brexit

Theresa May and the EU27 are talking past, not to, one another. And it may be David Cameron's fault. 

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Being a member of the European Union has long allowed Britain to ignore its neighbours. Even among the most cosmopolitan Britons, political events across the sea have rarely registered beyond a murmur.

But now, perhaps for the first time during Britain’s four-decade membership of the EU, a newspaper in another European country has set the political agenda here, leaving the BBC and other media outlets scrambling to catch up. On 1 May, five days after a dinner at 10 Downing Street between European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Theresa May, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) published a detailed account of what took place behind the black door.

FAZ reported that during the evening the Brexit Secretary David Davis foolishly joked about his successful court case at the European Court of Justice against Theresa May when she was home secretary and he was a backbencher. On the EU side, Juncker became aware that the British government and the EU27 had different ideas of what Brexit would mean. “Let us make Brexit a success,” FAZ reported May as saying, followed by Juncker’s response: “Brexit cannot be a success.” He told May that she was not resigning from a golf club.

Downing Street said that it “did not recognise” the leaked account of the dinner, and May dismissed it as “Brussels gossip”. Neither those are the same as a denial of the substance. Because, in part, the story was in a German paper, suspicion fell on a German, Martin Selmayr, Juncker’s influential chief of staff, as the source.

Certainly, Juncker comes out of the tale well, which tends to be a reasonable guide to the vague direction from which an anonymous briefing has emerged. As a Labour frontbencher once remarked of the departing MP for Barnsley East, Michael Dugher was “twice as funny” in the Sunday papers than in meetings of the Corbyn shadow cabinet. But a similarly dyspeptic view of the meeting had emerged the day before in the Sunday Times, a newspaper which is both Brexit-leaning and well-sourced with the May government. It meant the prime minister had to deny on the BBC that she was “in a different galaxy” to the EU leaders.

The view from Brussels insiders was that the leak – although undoubtedly full of juicy personal snippets – did not tell us much that we did not know before. It did, however, lay bare the prime minister’s difficulty in conducting a multilateral negotiation.

Theresa May prefers government business to be opaque. She cannot exercise the same degree of control when foreign leaders and their advisors, as well as foreign journalists, are involved. Still, the leak will corrode trust between Downing Street and the EU27 even further. The reality is, however, that securing agreement from a majority of member states and the European parliament cannot be done in private. Leaks will happen and transparency will have to be the default setting.

Conservative MPs are overly optimistic about what the Brexit talks will yield. May’s aides and allies have even suggested that Brexit will be “finished with” by 29 March 2019, when the two-year time limit to negotiate the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU will end.

In public and private, officials both of the European Union and the 27 member states insist that Article 50 will only be able to cover the terms of exit and transition – not the final trade deals, which are vital for the future of the British economy. The big story isn’t what either side is saying; it’s that neither the British government nor the EU27 appear to be listening to each other.

Why has this situation arisen? Some of the blame can be laid at the door of a half-forgotten gambit of David Cameron’s, when he was contesting the Tory leadership in 2005. To outflank David Davis and Liam Fox, he pledged to remove the Conservatives from the European People’s Party, the umbrella organisation for the continent’s centre-right parties.

The EPP had a major role as a talking shop for the European centre-right and has increased its influence in recent years. The electoral woes of the European left – which has won just eight elections out of 36 in the last decade – mean that the EU is more dominated by the right now than at any point in its history

The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk – who is responsible for chairing meetings of the elected leaders of the EU member states – is a member of the EPP. When he looks around the room, the most influential person is Angela Merkel, a member of the EPP. On issues affecting the day-to-day running of the EU, Tusk will consult Juncker, a member of the EPP. The president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, is also a member.

The regular meetings of the EPP are an opportunity for the bloc’s members to get to know one another and reach agreement in a more collegiate atmosphere. If the Conservative MEPs still attended, it would be an arena where the two sides could come together and understand one another better. It would be an important source of intelligence for Theresa May on what her counterparts are thinking, and vice versa.

Instead, the EU27 and the May government remain locked in a dialogue of the deaf, each side believing that the other is moving closer when they are moving further apart. David Cameron’s Tory exit from the EPP was the first step in the long journey towards Brexit. His decision may yet tip his successor towards a harder Brexit than she might otherwise wish.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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