The Brief – Time waits for no Tory

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

Theresa May gathered her ministers for yet another unfortunately titled Brexit ‘war cabinet’ at her country retreat on Thursday. Nobody in Brussels is holding their breath. Nor do May’s ministers appear to be in any great hurry to agree on a long-awaited negotiating position.

Yet time is not the UK’s friend.

This week’s ‘non-dispute’ over the precise length of the transition period – the EU says 21 months, the UK potentially wants longer, maybe) is an indication that UK ministers know that the clock is against them.

A letter to Brexit Secretary David Davis by Hillary Benn, who chairs the UK Parliament’s Exiting the EU committee, on Thursday (22 February) warns of the “urgent need now to provide more detail on the government’s plans”.

“If this does not happen, then there is a risk that either the start of negotiations on the future relationship will be delayed or that the EU’s negotiating guidelines may close off options,” it adds.

That these acute time pressures exist is largely because of the UK Prime Minister’s biggest tactical blunder – starting the Article 50 process last March, long before she was ready. Ministers had not agreed on what they wanted from the talks: a year on they still haven’t .

The civil service was not prepared. Even now, officials are groaning under an impossible weight of expectation to deliver the undeliverable.

The decision on when to start the Article 50 process – and start the two year ticking clock – was one of two trump cards held by London, the other being EU budget contributions. It was given up for nothing.

The ability to cut third party trade deals has been repeatedly cited by David Davis et al as the main reason for requesting a transition rather than delaying the exit date.

Yet civil servants and Westminster-insiders privately concede that these mythical trade deals, including the chief unicorn of them all: a UK-US pact, are many years away.

“This was obviously never possible,” a Westminster-based trade analyst tells EURACTIV. “They’ll do their best to mitigate the damage,” he says of beleaguered UK civil servants.

There is also strife between Crawford Falconer, the UK’s chief trade negotiator, and Olly Robbins, May’s Brexit advisor.

“Falconer though he would be leading on Brexit only to find that he is having his letters thrown in the bin by Olly Robbins,” a Westminster source tells EURACTIV.

May attempted a Brexit relaunch last week. But that is rather hard when your ministers who have been touring European capitals still do not have a detailed Brexit position to sell to their counterparts.

The sensible thing would be for the UK to request an extension to the Article 50 process. That would spare the EU, but particularly the UK negotiating team, from having to meet a near-impossible deadline.

But that, alas, appears to be politically impossible for a painfully weak and tactically inept prime minister.

The Roundup

Ahead of tomorrow’s informal summit, French President Macron eyes gaining the upper hand on the appointment of the next Commission president, if the implementation of transnational lists for the 2019 European elections does not pan out as he wishes.

A UK government paper on the ‘Implementation Period’ leaked, indicating that Theresa May’s government is preparing to re-open talks about the length of the transition period after the UK formally leaves the EU.

Stakes are high for Italy ahead of the general elections on 4 March as the country runs the risk of departing from basic European values such as the rule of law, candidate Alberto Alemanno told EURACTIV in an interview.

Meanwhile, former European Commissioner Emma Bonino returns to the Italian political scene for the upcoming general election with the +Europa coalition, and the aim of removing “the danger” of the far right and the Five Star Movement.

The air is getting thick once again as the Court of Justice ruled that Poland has infringed air quality laws, paving the way for further penalties and prolonging Warsaw’s ongoing spat with Brussels.

Macedonia is making headway in its bid to join the EU, German Chancellor Merkel said, praising recent reforms by Skopje and the prospect of settling its chronic name dispute with Greece.

The US urged Albania to avoid “careless language” after its prime minister suggested a single president and single security policy for both his country and neighbouring Kosovo in a speech that infuriated Serbia.

In the land of wine, a recent study published by the French NGO Générations Future hit the nerve when revealing that 89% of grape samples were contaminated by pesticides. Pesticide residues were found in samples from 19 fruit and 33 vegetables.

Public health leaders warn that Brexit negotiations mean health risks are being forgotten, potentially delaying the availability of new medicines and imposing large costs on manufacturers.

Parliament is exploring ways to convert the younger generation’s online engagement into higher turnout in the upcoming elections, write MEPs Ramón Luis Valcárcel and Sylvie Guillaume.

And Germany’s influence over the EU is clearly already paying off after yesterday’s news, as the latest decision by the bloc’s top court clearly shows…

Look out for…

Tomorrow’s informal EU-27 summit in Brussels, which will discuss preparation for the 2019 European elections, institutional issues and the next long-term EU budget.

Views are the author’s

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