Brexit weekly: 5 things

Guess who’s not coming to dinner again?

This week’s Brexit news has been dominated by the fallout from Theresa May’s not-so-comfortable dining experience with Jean-Claude Juncker. Details from last week’s meeting between the Prime Minister and President of the European Commission at Number 10 were leaked to the German newspaper FAS, which confirmed through a comprehensive account that “Das Brexit Dinner” was quite the event… and not in a good way.

The Guardian followed up the report this week by revealing Juncker’s displeasure with the evening’s discussions, coming away from the event “10 times more sceptical” over the prospects of achieving an exit deal between the EU and the UK within the next two years. He also reportedly called German Chancellor Angela Merkel shortly after the EU delegation left Downing Street and said May was both “deluded” and “living in a parallel universe” in thinking a trade deal could be agreed quickly and without pain for the UK.

It wasn’t just Britain’s negotiating position which irked Juncker and his team, however. The account of the evening describes Brexit secretary David Davis’ attempts to insert himself into debate by “repeatedly boasting” about striking down Theresa May’s proposed surveillance laws many-a-moons ago in the European Court of Justice. Apparently, Davis was joking around, and simply trying to break the ice. But his dinner table conversation will have done little to soften hardened European attitudes, might have annoyed his Prime Minister (the surveillance laws considered a touchy subject for May, and failed to distract from the canapes.

Speaking of which, no complaints about the food were reported.

Theresa strikes back

The Prime Minister was understandably none too impressed by the emergence of these reports, and her office quickly refuted the account given by FAS and, latterly, every other news organisation in Europe. May’s response did not stop at a simple rebuttal though, and the PM came out swinging on Wednesday, accusing EU officials plotting to “deliberately affect” the result of the UK general election in June.

The PM provided an impassioned defence of her Government’s efforts to protect the interest of Britons during the Brexit process, while lambasting bureaucrats in Brussels who had “misrepresented” the UK’s position because they “do not want these talks to succeed.” May’s comments were a well calculated ploy in the midst of the Conservatives’ campaign to inflate their parliamentary majority, and were – of course – not taken seriously by members of the British press. No, wait: they were! The Sun raged at “Nuclear Juncker’s poll fix bid”, the Mail demanded the EU take its “hands off our election”, and the Daily Express more politely requested Brussels to stop meddling.

Meanwhile, the Russians all thought this was a bit funny, with the Russian Embassy in the UK responding to the news by tweeting, “Praise God it’s not Russia this time.”

Advice from the guy on the bike

Regardless of whether there are were any grains of truth in the Prime Ministers accusations, it’s difficult to see how May’s bold claims this week will help the UK to achieve the Brexit deal it really wants. By most accounts – not just those involving leaked dinner gossip – British and European negotiators are quite a distance from achieving any meaningful agreement on a number of key factors, including the UK’s Brexit bill, which has caused a stir all on its own over the past week. They will probably be less inclined towards friendly banter now.

May could do worse than take some friendly advice from former Finance Minister of Greece Yannis Varoufakis, who presided over the protracted – and ultimately unsuccessful – negotiations on a Greek bailout deal in 2015. Varoufakis spelled out six “innovative tactics” or “traps” he believes the EU will use in its approach to negotiations with Theresa May’s Government (presumed Government, I mean) in a Guardian article adapted from his book describing the 2015 negotiations. One’s view on the distinctly ‘hip’ motorbike-riding Varoufakis may well be clouded by ideological allegiance, but the cautionary tale he provides is fascinating. The dangerous radical/socialist visionary pointed out that an evidenced and well-reasoned approach to negotiations may not achieve much for May’s team, and that the UK side should be wary of spoiling tactics including arduous and unnecessary demands for extra information and contradictory responses from key officials running the show in Brussels. Theresa May might argue that the ‘truth reversal’ and ‘sequencing’ techniques – designed to spread disinformation and pre-determine the order of events, respectively – have already been on show this week.

Will the Lib Dems stick or twist?

The Liberal Democrats were outspokenly confident of their prospects for picking up several seats in the general election at the beginning of the campaign. The Party’s primary approach is to target anti-Brexit and anti-Corbyn voters who might usually vote for either the Conservatives or Labour, but are shopping around due to their frustrations with the prospect of an isolated United Kingdom and a weak opposition led by Jeremy Corbyn.

However, faith is already starting to waver. Some polls have the Party down three points since the snap election was called on 18 April, and there has been considerable consternation on the performance and popularity of leader Tim Farron. Farron has been criticised for his changing views on homosexuality, and while the clarification he recently offered voters on this topic will allow some left-leaning liberals to breathe a sigh of relief, others might be frustrated by the lack of coverage the Party is receiving on anything other than Farron’s personal views and it’s hardline stance against Brexit. It has also emerged that the Conservatives are now the second favourite political party of students (behind Labour), who are yet to forgive the Lib Dems for their broken promises on tuition fees.

It will be interesting to see which direction the Liberal Democrats decide to take their campaign in. Will they remain the only major political party clearly opposed to Brexit? Some commentators believe they would do well to talk about something else for a change especially since certain analysis shows they are actually set to pick up very few “remain” seats in this election. Either way, they’d better start picking up some momentum, and sharpish.

Frexit debate heats up

As we discussed last week, most of the EU, nay, the world, is less concerned about Brexit at the moment than it is frightened by the prospect of a Frexit. This feeling was encapsulated by Barak Obama’s decision to intervene in favour of a vote for Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the French Presidential elections this coming Sunday.

French voters were treated to a tasty TV debate between Macron and Marine Le Pen the night before Obama’s endorsement, in which the anti-establishment centrist labelled the Front National leader a dangerously nationalistic “hate-filled liar”. Le Pen’s retorts – calling Macron a “smirking banker” in favour of “big economic interests” – appear to have been less effective as French media labelled the frontrunner the winner of the debate. Indeed, Macron has stretched his lead to 14 points in the final days of, let’s say, an unpleasant campaign.

Obama is far from the only man or woman rooting for Emmanuel, as Le Pen has promised to take France out of the Euro and hold a referendum on EU membership. Whatever you think of the radical right’s standard bearer, one cannot question her commitment, as Ms Le Pen is said to be quite the early-riser, in the mould of Thatcher and others who strangely defy humans’ physiological need for ample sleep.

George Osborne could certainly take note, with most of the major dailies reporting that the new Editor of the Evening Standard turned up for his first day as late as 7:01am, not only one whole minute later than he’d promised, but also a shocking half an hour later than his predecessor Sarah Sands. Reports of delays on the Hammersmith and City line that morning are unconfirmed.


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