22nd Mar 2018

Column / Brexit Briefing

Warm words in London, isolation in Brussels

  • Theresa May quickly found herself sidelined in Brussels. (Photo: Consilium)

The video footage of Theresa May standing alone, looking for someone to talk to, at Thursday’s EU summit quickly went viral, and prompted an indignant reaction from the UK’s right-wing tabloids.

It was the perfect metaphor: welcome to self-imposed isolation.

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So, too, is the fact that EU leaders spent just 20 minutes discussing Brexit in Brussels, after Mrs May had flown back across the Channel. Leaving the EU may be the government’s chief policy priority, but not top of the EU’s agenda.

If the Theresa May lonely show is an embarrassing slight for a country that thinks of itself as a world power, it was a welcome reality check that Brexit will not just be about Britain.

At least the UK government appears to be aware of this reality.

"Nation states, quite properly, put the interests of their own people high up the priority lists", Brexit minister David Davis told the Exiting the EU committee in Westminster on Wednesday (14 December).

"This is not going to be a single-dimensional haggling match."

Davis is one of the more pugnacious members of May’s government, a former whip and home affairs spokesman who specialised in forcing his Labour opponents to resign. He is also a staunch eurosceptic.

So it was striking to hear his emollient tone, telling MPs that "a smooth and orderly exit" was his ambition and that post-Brexit UK had "every intention of continuing to be a good European citizen."

He also sought to butter up European Commission negotiator Michel Barnier commenting that "I know Michel of old…he will be a tough negotiator but he will want the best outcome."

The toned-down rhetoric is long overdue, although ministers need to take a similarly open-minded and message to their European counterparts.

£50 billion Brexit bill

Davis’s November visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg was not a diplomatic success, and Boris Johnson has not improved his already dismal reputation across European capitals in his first five months as foreign minister.

What is coming out of ministers in December has been a reassuring dose of pragmatism after months of "we need them more than we need us" rhetoric. The "soft" and "hard" Brexit factions in government are, for the time being, singing from the same hymn sheet.

"I take the view that the best outcome is a negotiated free access to markets outcome and, with it, a negotiated outcome on justice, home affairs and security," said Davis, the closest he got to committing himself to a pre-Brexit strategy.

"This is much more complicated than a chess game," he added.

The next step will need to be expectation management; on the likely contents of the divorce settlement, and the time that it will take.

The Department for Exiting the EU, for example, has grown from about 40 staff in July to 330, but has been budgeted on the assumption that it will only exist for about two and a half years.

That is probably wishful thinking, particularly if Ivan Rogers, the UK’s EU ambassador, is close to the mark in his warning that agreeing a post-Brexit deal could take a decade.

Stephen Mayer, home affairs spokesman for Angela Merkel’s CDU party, told the BBC that the UK’s expectation of striking a new EU trade deal within the two-year period of Article 50 was “a little bit naive”. He was being polite.

There is also the question of cost. Regardless of whether the UK opts to pay for single market access as part of a transitional or permanent arrangement, there will be a Brexit bill – paying for pre-existing EU budgetary commitments, not to mention the cost of EU staff pensions and contracts.

The Financial Times reported on Friday (16 December) that the final bill could total as much as £50 billion. A figure of that size would spook the Tory backbenches, not to mention Leave voters.

"This is a turning point in our history," Davis told MPs on Wednesday. Yet as May discovered the following day in Brussels, the fact that most EU countries regret the UK’s impending departure, will not be translated into extra attention and special favours.

Divorce is rarely pretty and invariably painful for all parties involved. Without compromise or goodwill, there is a real risk of the UK being left out in the cold, in splendid isolation.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

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