Dan O’Brien: ‘Frustration abounds as the EU 28 prepare to have their say’

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Dan O’Brien: ‘Frustration abounds as the EU 28 prepare to have their say’

How do other EU countries view Brexit and what position will they take at Wednesday’s emergency summit? Dan O’Brien spoke to European sources to find out


'European basic law, as set out in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, says member countries decide — unanimously — on granting an extension to a departing member' Stock image
‘European basic law, as set out in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, says member countries decide — unanimously — on granting an extension to a departing member’ Stock image

Until now, Brexit has had little material effect on everyday life other than to increase uncertainty and worry. That could change radically over the next week.

Yet another crunch moment will take place on Wednesday when 28 EU leaders meet in Brussels for an emergency summit on the issue.

Front and centre will be whether 27 of them agree to allow their British counterpart to drag out the process further and what terms they would demand for acquiescing to Britain’s request to do so.

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Let’s start with a clarification. There has been much talk about what “Brussels” and “the EU” will do. It should be clear the potentially momentous decisions taken this week will be made by 28 national leaders, not by Brussels or any EU institutions.

European basic law, as set out in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, says member countries decide – unanimously – on granting an extension to a departing member. Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, both presidents of EU institutions, sit at the summit table but do not have a vote.

If that much is clear, not much else is. Over recent days, I have sought the views of two dozen informed people in continental countries whose leaders will be at the table on Wednesday. They are set out here, country by country.

More generally, a number of themes emerged. One is acute uncertainty.

In normal times, people close to affairs of state have a good sense of how things will turn out – they can predict “landing zones” with a fair degree of accuracy.

These are not normal times. People whose business it is to know what is going on are much less confident in their assessments of how things will play out this week, never mind how the whole Brexit saga will end and how damaging it will turn out to be.

Another theme that emerged from these conversations was a willingness to keep going with the Brexit process, despite near universal frustration with Britain and Brexit.

There have been many media reports about a hardball approach being taken by some countries at Wednesday’s summit but teasing this out with sources and observers suggests fear of being blamed for pushing Britain over the cliff edge on Friday night – even in the hard-line countries – remains a central determinant as leaders consider their tactics.

Another almost universal view is that short-termism prevails. Avoiding a no-deal Brexit on Friday is now the main issue for most countries.

There has been limited focus in capitals on thinking 10, five or even three steps ahead. For instance, very little thought is being given to how leaders across the continent would deal with prime minister Boris Johnson having a seat at their summit table in the second half of this year, next year and possibly beyond.

As almost always the case in politics, there is much less thinking ahead than outside observers often believe. Messiness and the hopes of muddling through are features of even the highest politics.

Yet another theme to emerge from the conversations was that while nobody expects Wednesday’s meeting to be plain sailing, there was a general assumption it would be a reasoned affair, with Theresa May putting forward her request for a second extension and the other leaders setting out their terms. It is to be hoped this is how it turns out, but perhaps hope continues to triumph over expectation.

The British prime minister has not just disappointed her counterparts on numerous occasions in the past. There have been times when they have found her contributions to be almost detached from what they believe to be reality. That includes the last summit in Brussels two weeks ago and a meeting in Salzburg late last year.

Only one person I talked to last week spoke admiringly of the British prime minister. The big risk on Wednesday is if May does not have a viable plan and the conversation among the leaders becomes fraught.

As of lunchtime yesterday, her attempts to forge a way forward with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party were ongoing. If a joint position is agreed that would command a substantial majority in the House of Commons, EU leaders will breathe a collective sigh of relief.

But there are many reasons to believe two parties as different and divided as May’s Conservatives and Corbyn’s Labour will not come to an agreement. If they don’t, the 27 EU leaders are still expected to grant another extension but intense frustration among the minority of countries that are less amenable to dragging the process out – most notably France – could boil over.

Things don’t always come right on the night and efforts to muddle through can hit a wall.

Germany

Germany is the EU’s most powerful country. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is a “status quo” player when it comes to Brexit. On her visit to Dublin last week, she went out of her way to stress her desire to avoid a disorderly exit. “Flexibility” is a word frequently used by Germans with knowledge of their capital’s immediate tactical approach.

On Britain holding European Parliamentary elections, those Germans I spoke to had a very broad range of views. At one extreme, Germany might not insist – if push came to shove – on having British MEPs in the next parliament in the event the country is still a member in the second half of this year. Another believes that having Britain hold elections next month would be Germany’s “red line” on Wednesday night.

France

President Emmanuel Macron will be the other central player on Wednesday. Despite the closeness of the Franco-German relationship, the two countries can often have very different underlying views on issues of shared interest.

That is true of how to handle Brexit in the short term, with Macron outwardly taking the hardest line on giving concessions to Britain, in part because he appears to be thinking further ahead than most other leaders. “A red line for him is to avoid the UK having a say on nominations to key EU positions,” one person in Paris observed.

Again, the European Parliament elections are a major consideration. French observers point to how British participation in the elections could influence the French campaign and the outcome of the vote.

Having Britain leave in five days’ time would avoid “contaminating” the campaign. This factor, however, will not override others and even if Macron ends up being May’s toughest interlocutor on Wednesday, the balance of probability is that he will go along with an extension.

Italy

Although Italy’s population and economy are roughly the same as France, the country has never punched up to its weight in European affairs. Domestic political weakness has always limited Italy’s international clout and that is true today more than ever with a Trumpian government in power.

Italy’s national interest tends to be defined narrowly and Brexit is not considered a vital national interest. Observers in Rome do not expect the non-political premier, Giuseppe Conte, to rock the boat on Wednesday. Italy will follow whatever consensus emerges.

Spain

The Iberian country ranks fourth in standard assessments of the pecking order among the EU 27. One authoritative viewpoint in Madrid is that Spain will cleave closely to the French position, even if such a position does not align with Spanish interests. The always-contentious issue of Gibraltar and the fact a general election campaign is ongoing are also factors that will influence Madrid’s position.

Poland

The biggest of the members to join since 2004, Poland is a significant beneficiary from the EU budget and has hundreds of thousands of citizens resident in the UK.

A disorderly Brexit poses challenges for Warsaw on both these issues. Poland “wants to be as helpful as possible to the Brits”, said one Pole.

Poland has been the only country to question the Irish backstop, although it has not pursued that position after being charged with threatening the unity of the 27.

The Polish government is less concerned about British participation in the European elections than other capitals. Ultimately, Poland is unlikely to have a determining outcome on Wednesday night.

Denmark

One of the EU countries best disposed to Britain, and with stronger trade links than most other members, Denmark has a clear interest in avoiding no deal. As such, it will not join the harder-line countries.

That said, even the Danes are frustrated. One sober source described dealing with Britain as akin to dealing with a “screaming baby”.

Hungary

An angle of particular interest in Budapest is the European Parliamentary elections. The political grouping that wins most seats gets first dibs on the big EU jobs, including president of the European Commission. That has knock-on effects for who gets other presidential roles, including the head of the European Council, Parliament and Central Bank.

Currently, the biggest grouping is the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP). The ruling Fidesz party in Hungary has been suspended from the EPP because leader Viktor Orban stands accused of undermining Hungary’s democracy.

If Britain participates in the European Parliamentary elections ,it will return a significant number of MEPs who are part of the Socialist grouping, but none for the EPP – the Conservatives pulled out of that grouping a decade ago.

If Fidesz MEPs are needed to ensure the EPP is the largest grouping in the next parliament, Orban could be expected to leverage his position for all its worth.

Finland

Brexit is not a major issue for Finland, reflecting the position of many other countries that have no close ties to Britain.

As with Finland, these countries are not going to Wednesday’s summit with strong positions and their leaders may not even join the discussion. “Flexibility” is the watchword in Helsinki. That Finland is holding a general election next Sunday means Brexit is less of an issue right now.

Sunday Independent

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