So much for that Friday feeling – Theresa May’s day out at the European social summit has proved a slog. First, an increasingly angry Irish Taoiseach threatened to block the progress of Brexit talks over the Irish border – telling hacks that he couldn’t ‘in any honesty’ say that an agreement is close. Then, Donald Tusk issued a stern warning that ‘much more progress’ will have to be made in order for him to even consider letting the talks progress to trade in December.
The European Council president said that while ‘good progress’ on citizens’ rights is being made, he needs to see ‘much more progress’ on Ireland and on the financial settlement. In a helpful reminder that the clock is ticking, he told May that ‘this progress needs to happen at the beginning of December at the latest’. As for David Davis’ Brexit speech, on Thursday night, calling on the EU to compromise, Tusk quipped that he appreciated ‘Mr Davis’s English sense of humour’.
The words today from the summit – and the messages from Brussels in the past week – suggest that rather than softening their stance, the EU27 is hardening it. The emollient tone that followed the last EU council meeting – which seemed to suggest a green light to talk trade was on its way – has been replaced by a new hardline approach.
There are many factors at play here but the concern in Whitehall is that May’s precarious position is damaging Britain’s bargaining position. Following the chaos of recent weeks, there is worry in Brussels that she may not make it through as PM to the end of the negotiations. It follows that the EU27 are now much more anxious about taking the government’s word on issues like the Irish border or money. The call for a ‘written agreement’ is in part down to concerns that a new leader could be thrust upon them halfway into the negotiations and suddenly renege on any verbal commitments.
Both May and the government will have to use the next two weeks to work out how to ease these concerns without giving too much away. If trade talks are blocked in December, No 10 will have a fight on its hands keeping the party together. Many Brexiteer MPs feel that if the talks do not progress before the new year, May is better served walking away from the negotiating table. To the other half of her party, however, that is unthinkable.