Trans-Europe Express – Desperately seeking white smoke

The Trans-Europe Express is EURACTIV's weekly roundup of news from across Europe.

In less than nine months, the UK will formally leave the EU. That much is clear. Nothing else is.

Prime Minister Theresa May, for whom the word ‘beleaguered’ could have been invented, has been reduced to gathering her most senior ministers at her country house at Chequers on Friday (July 6) and keeping them until the white smoke of agreement appears.

The selective leaks from the 120-page document suggest that May’s proposed compromise would effectively keep the UK in the single market for goods. That is Brexit In Name Only, say leading Brexiteers.

A group of Brexiteer cabinet ministers led, unsurprisingly, by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, held their own crisis talks at his ministry last night. That prompted rumours of mass resignations. Adding to the sense of melodrama, ministers will be given the numbers of local taxi companies in case they decide to resign and lose access to their ministerial car and driver.

Like all summits, it’s unlikely to reach a definitive agreement, however. Instead, the most likely endgame is a fudged agreement, and that Brexiteers Ministers and May’s allies brief that they have won.

But regardless of what happens at Chequers, it won’t matter much if Michel Barnier’s Article 50 Task Force rejects the UK’s proposals out of hand.

The popular assumption in both the UK and Brussels is that self-interest will prevail and a deal will eventually be done. But Brexit is fundamentally about politics, not economic self-interest.

Nor are the parliamentary numbers in Mrs May’s favour. If Brexiteers don’t have the numbers to get a ‘no deal’ Brexit through Parliament, she can’t get a ‘soft Brexit’ through without losing half her party.

Exasperated by the series of business leaders, ranging from Airbus to Jaguar, lining up to attack the government’s handling of the talks, Johnson is said to have responded with ‘fuck business’.

But a ‘no deal’ is no good to anyone on the other side of La Manche either. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the EU this week, mooted the prospect of extending the Article 50 process yesterday in order to avoid a ‘no deal’. That would buy more time but nothing else.

So what’s the way out: a new government, or another referendum?

You get different answers depending on what the nature of the second referendum question is, says polling guru Sir John Curtice.

Most Britons don’t want to rush back to the polls, either for a re-run or a vote on the final deal, and the polling numbers on whether they would vote to stay or leave the EU are almost identical to those in June 2016.

Watching this catalogue of political failures play out, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that London and Brussels have approached the talks in the same way as they have for the last 50 years.

The UK, with its unwritten constitution, is saying that ‘we make it up as we go along, can’t you do the same?’. The EU is taking a Gallic perspective that ‘these are the rules and these are the consequences.’

If neither side changes its stance, a chaotic ‘no deal’ becomes increasingly inevitable. And that would mark a political failure even more serious than mistakes that culminated in the Leave vote itself.

The Inside Track

By Freya Kirk

Shaky start. Austria’s EU Presidency has got off to a busy and, perhaps, inauspicious beginning. Proposals on reforming the bloc’s asylum system have raised eyebrows. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz hinted Brexit talks could be extended.

Think twice. Greece’s conservative main opposition party has warned Pierre Moscovici to be “more careful” following speeches he gave while on official visit.

Messy Moldova. The EU has frozen a €100 million aid package to Moldova after a disputed mayoral election race in the capital Chisinau which critics say undermined the country’s democratic credentials.

Croatia has been an EU member for exactly five years but have the benefits of being in the bloc trickled down yet?

Lost in translation. Interpreters at the EP are currently on strike. MEPs showed their support for them by switching off their microphones for 30 minutes during a plenary session.

Let it be. MEPs blocked a controversial copyright bill from moving on to the next phase of negotiations in a dramatic vote that followed weeks of intense lobbying.

Top Gun(s). Ahead of the NATO July summit in Brussels, MEPs endorsed the creation of a €500 million program aimed at boosting innovation in the European defence industry.

The Great Wall. The EU and China are speeding up preparatory work for their bilateral summit. The two sides are trying to agree on a joint position despite differences on trade issues.

Fast and furious. The EU has threatened the US with countermeasures worth $294 billion if the Trump administration imposes further tariffs on European cars.

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