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Why next week's Salzburg meeting could be a false summit on Theresa May's climb to Brexit

Category: Political News,Politics

One running joke of the Brexit talks has been that they are like climbing a mountain. Negotiators have tried to publicly one-up each other with jaunty gifts of walking poles and mountaineering guides, adding a bit of colour to an otherwise dry saga.

It is in that spirit that Theresa May will travel to Salzburg in the Austrian Alps next week to meet EU leaders in search of a breakthrough. In Westminster, the meeting has been much hyped. But she may leave on Thursday feeling like she has hit another false summit.

The PM will arrive with the fundamental principles of her Chequers plan having already been put to the sword by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier. The British government still insists the plan lives, blames Barnier’s “dogmatic legalism” for dismantling it, and hopes to engage directly with national leaders who it sees as a softer touch. 

The big hope for the UK is that after a frank discussion, member states will soften their instructions to Mr Barnier so that he can make concessions. But the convenient narrative of governments aghast at what their negotiator is doing doesn’t seem to accord with reality. 

“Legally the Commission doesn’t need a new mandate,” one senior EU diplomat said, speaking ahead of the summit. “The Commission needs a mandate for the withdrawal agreement and this is what they have.

“I don’t see a situation where Michel Barnier says, ‘I’m fine with the mandate’, and the heads of state give him another one. If we should give additional guidance – and that is a big if – it would only be done in concerted discussion with the Commission.”

Other Brussels sources point out that there cannot even be any change to Barnier’s mandate at Salzburg, because it is an informal summit and doesn’t have the legal power to make instructions. Any change agreed informally would have to be passed next month, at the October European Council. Britain may be barking up the wrong mountain.

I don’t see a situation where Michel Barnier says ‘I’m fine with the mandate’ and the heads of state give him another one
Senior EU diplomat

If there is one concrete thing the prime minister might get at Salzburg, it is yet another summit. Proposals have been floating around in Brussels backrooms for a dedicated Brexit meeting to be held in Brussels in mid-November – a date increasingly seen as a new deadline for a deal (RIP October).

This looks increasingly likely, simply because of time constraints. Salzburg isn’t about Brexit: it’s supposed to be about internal security and border control and Britain’s departure is expected to get two hours over lunch. After Salzburg, the next time leaders meet will be the October European Council in Brussels. But a significant chunk of that meeting will be taken up by Asian presidents and prime ministers who will be in town to talk trade and investment. Once again, Brexit could take a back seat. After that, it’ll be December – which the EU has long insisted is too late.

While being told to “come back in two months when we can fit you in” might be embarrassing for Ms May, it would also buy her more time – something that is running increasingly short after a paralysing summer.

The prime minister should expect a warning from leaders in Salzburg about the need for a solution to the Irish border. But to sugar that pill, they may yet manage to summon up some warm words about Chequers – perhaps on security, or the fact it recommends a free trade agreement. There is practically zero chance they will endorse its single market for goods proposals, or its customs plan, however – the two major sticking points. But with any declaration on the future relationship now widely expected to be a vague fudge anyway, that might not matter.

“They are looking for something positive to say,” one official says. “Carrot and stick.”

While the focus in Westminster has very much been on Chequers, it is Ireland that needs to be solved to prevent a no deal. Sources in Brussels have for months suggested the Commission is working on a new version of its ‘backstop’ to prevent a border. But what form it will take – and whether it will be any more palatable – remains to be seen. Work on that was delayed because Britain was slow to hand over data relating to existing checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea – on which the Commission wants to base its new proposal. It may not be ready in time for Salzburg, but it will be crucial for a deal.

Despite its limitations, the British strategy of trying to go over the Commission’s head to member states continues. Some are more receptive to UK proposals than others, but where there are differences, they are more ones of emphasis than fundamental principles. 

EU leaders are well aware that they have nothing to gain from being divided in public by Britain. Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker used his annual state of the union speech on Wednesday to spell out the logic, which runs through not just Brexit talks, but all the EU’s dealings.

“When we are united, we Europeans, as a union, have become a force to be reckoned with that you cannot do without … Whenever Europe speaks as one, we can impose our position on others,” he said. 

Though the Commission president was talking about his dealings with Donald Trump, he could just as easily have been speaking about Brexit.

The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.

Sign our petition here

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