The salvage job has already begun and a better verdict sought than disaster. If Salzburg was not all a misunderstanding, it was more like a farce without the laughs. People literally passed each other in the night. Theresa May’s ten minute pitch over dinner, followed by a leaders’ chat over lunch next day without her was hardly the stuff and style of diplomacy. In the gap between the two meals, rumours and spin raised suspicions and fears about British intentions and fueled insecurities among the EU principals. Commentators have now been given more nuanced accounts. A somewhat chastened EU President Donald Tusk even sounds positive about Chequers.
The response of the EU27 leaders was to reiterate our trust in chief negotiator Michel Barnier and to reiterate our position on the integrity of the Single Market and the Irish backstop. While understanding the logic of the negotiations, I remain convinced that a compromise, good for all, is still possible. I say these words as a close friend of the UK and a true admirer of PM May. After intensive consultations with Member States, we decided that for the good of the negotiations, and out of respect for the efforts of PM May, we will treat the Chequers plan as a step in the right direction.
Developing the theme, briefed commentators have been cherry picking their way through the better bits of Chequers. This is all very encouraging when it comes to facing Brussels – until it emerges that their positivity rests on an extended relationship with the customs union for a lengthy transition period, which the FT and most of its writers support . To be sure, their choice is a whole lot better than a “blind Brexit”, not to mention a No Deal. It will largely finesse the border problem. But it will be opposed tooth and nail by the Brexiteers at home. If Mrs May defies them and takes the bait, it will be sign of a shift in strategy from one arguably over-influenced by party considerations – one big reason for her Salzburg errors – to a EU- facing one, which ought to be the priority once she had cleared the Conservative party conference in a fortnight’s time. The revised border policy will be hard to imagine gaining the approval of the DUP. So more than likely, her shift will leave her fighting for survival just the same.
Mrs May appeared to believe that it would be enough to assert loudly that the Chequers plan was the only option, and to complement this with attempts to bypass Michel Barnier and his negotiating team with a strident article in a German newspaper and direct diplomacy. She would put her head down and charge. As it was, she fell flat. She has little background or flair for negotiating with the EU. Her previous role as home secretary from 2010 to 2016 (one of the longest-serving occupants of that office) meant that her dealings with the EU were in the “pick and choose” area of justice and home affairs, where the UK could and did just opt in and opt out.
One recurring problem with the UK’s dealings with the EU is its belief that “more politics” is the solution to any problem. .. the UK keeps on bringing the weapons of propaganda and posturing to battles where the EU comes armed with process and patience. And it still keeps wondering why it fails. There is no reason for the UK to fail, as for 45 years it has managed to influence and shape the EU. The single market itself owes a great deal to the practical skills of British politicians and officials.
All this said, however, Salzburg is not that significant for Brexit. The UK is still on course to leave the EU by automatic operation of law on March 29 2019 (unless something exceptional and not currently in sight happens). The EU and UK are still likely to finalise a withdrawal agreement, and will find the means to deal with the Irish backstop issue. Most of the Chequers proposals are not about the terms of exit but about the future relationship between the UK and EU. And so for the EU to be emphatic in its rejection of those proposals does not directly derail the departure, but instead makes the destination less clear.
This is not as bad for May as some would have it. It is informative to dissect the two issues May chose to highlight in her own press conference, because it reveals the UK government’s priorities. First, she sings from the same hymn sheet as the EU27 on the absolute need for a legally operative Irish backstop, as she has done before (not just in December but also in March). So far, the only draft legal text on the table, publicly at least, is the EU’s. The UK has not produced one. But in Salzburg, May promised this will now come. I would expect it immediately after her party conference. The second point the prime minister made after the summit was that the backstop “cannot divide the UK into two customs territories”. That is an understandable enough UK policy position, although the EU could easily retort that Spain does that with the Canary Islands, and nobody seems bothered. (Strictly speaking, the Canaries are in the EU customs territory but not in its VAT territory, which means customs processing applies on shipments from mainland Spain.) In any case, the UK demand is one that is in the UK’s gift to secure — by keeping the rest of the UK in a customs union with the EU. And since Number 10’s paper on this issue in June, this has been the UK government’s explicit ask for the backstop.
May continued with a defence of Chequers — but take good note: of the basic principle of frictionless goods trade, rather than of the specific mechanisms such as a quantum-mechanical hybrid customs regime by which the government pretends the UK could be both inside and outside the EU customs territory.
To me this sounds like a prime minister who cares more about avoiding new borders — both north-south and east-west — than about being able to strike new trade deals with other countries. As Anand Menon argues, the chief virtue of Chequers is that it comes as close to a compromise between Britain’s warring tribes as one can conceive. All of this suggests that the government, far from giving up on Chequers, will be prepared to make further concessions on the specifics to gain agreement from the EU27 on the plan’s basic principle. (And such an agreement would, of course, allow her to tell her parliament and public that the backstop would never come into effect.) To get to this point, however, Britain, as I have argued before, will have to sign up to a permanent customs union with the EU in all but name, and accept the full force of European jurisdiction in everything to do with production and trade in goods (as well as some broader market regulations to stop a race to the bottom).
Mrs May has long had an infamous reputation in government for being inflexible and failing to add nuance to her private messages.
One source said that Mr Robbins had been warning Mrs May that Salzburg might be a disaster, but the prime minister and her political aides were unwilling to take heed.
resident Macron led the charge saying that the EU council needed to send a clear message to London that Chequers as it stood was not the basis for a deal.
London, he said, should not be left under the illusion that if they strung the process along it would be the EU that would compromise not them.
But importantly the message was not that Chequers was not the basis of a deal – as it was later portrayed – more that it needed to be refined.
One senior EU ambassador said that, in private, the view of many countries is that the EU will live with Mrs May’s plan for a common rule book but that it can’t be called that and Britain needs to agree to follow new EU social and environmental legislation as well.
But they want a guarantee that until they are happy with the system — which could take years to develop — the UK as a whole would remain in the customs union.
This is the basis of a Chequers-style deal — but it is not Chequers as written down in black and white in the government’s white paper.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London