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20 October 2017

Is the EU really being unreasonable in Brexit talks?

Without some kind of achievement today, the PM will be pulled further to her party's right.

By Stephen Bush

I’m just a girl, standing in front of a trade bloc, asking them not to crush her. That, if you strip away the spin, is the message Theresa May delivered to her European counterparts last night.

But although the PM will likely leave today’s summit in Brussels able to hold aloft warm words on the need for preparing for transition, agreement that “sufficient progress” has been reached for talks to move on to the next stage is unlikely to be forthcoming.

That’s feeding a new argument being made by May’s allies in Westminster and Whitehall: that it is the EU27 who are now being unreasonable, not her. They point out that the PM expended considerable political capital in her Florence speech in laying out a more reasonable position on money – and indeed has been careful to keep the question of money on the table despite the entreaties from Brexit ultras – and that there has been little recognition of the importance of giving Downing Street “proof of concept” that they can use to see off her internal rivals. Are they right?

Well, sort of. The difficulty with all international agreements, including the EU, is that although everyone understands that everyone else has domestic politics, that understanding rarely leads to any particular sensitivity. (See, for instance, David Cameron’s loud trumpeting of the need to block Jean-Claude Juncker’s accession to the presidency, which he did in a way which made it impossible for Angela Merkel, who wasn’t keen on him either, to go along with it. Or Angela Merkel declining the option to go easier on Greece’s right-wing government and ending up with Syriza as a result.)

As Polly Toynbee recognises over at the Guardian, the extreme likelihood is that if something happens to May, the result will be a government that is even more committed to the hardest of all possible Brexits. It’s also true that May has always had a sensible position on money, unlike some members of her government.

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And without some kind of achievement today, May will be pulled further to her party’s right. Indulging the nonsense over no deal – according to the Times, David Davis has instructed civil servants to begin drawing up plans for the talks ending in failure – is silly, but it’s also the minimum price that May needs to pay for her survival.

Which comes back to why her European counterparts would both be wise to prop May up and are nervous about doing so. Her weakness means that they should bolster the PM for fear of getting something worse. But her weakness means that they have good reason to see her as unreliable and ephemeral, too.