Briefing from Brussels

By Alan Roden

*This article first appeared in The Herald on 25/06/18*

THIS Thursday in Brussels, all eyes will be on Belgium as they attempt to inflict defeat on a country which knows all too well about trudging away from the international stage.

But while fans gather in Place du Luxembourg to cheer on Les Diables Rouges against England, 27 European leaders will meet in a nearby building to ask why the UK can’t decide how to walk away from the EU.

Two years on from the Leave vote, they will gravely agree there has been a lack of progress. Then they will move on.

For while the Brexit soap opera continues to play out here in the UK, the attitude in Brussels is a collective shrug of the shoulders. Or ‘bof’, en français.

Brexit is not even on the agenda for the main business being discussed at this week’s European Council meeting in the Belgian capital.

At the top of the to-do list is migration, and control of the EU’s external borders. Security and defence, tax evasion and avoidance, and how to regulate data across the continent will also come up – critical national issues only resolved with close international working relationships between neighbours.

Last week, I was in Brussels to witness what our European allies think about Brexit, two years since the vote.

In one sentence, it’s this: “We’re sorry you’re leaving, but get on with it.”

The EU and its institutions have moved on, accepting the UK is on the way out and getting on with their work which affects citizens in 27 other countries.

In the European Parliament last week there was a hotly-contested internal debate about fertiliser – no doubt a headline writer’s dream for Britain’s Eurosceptic tabloids if they still employed Brussels-based journalists.

The debate centres on how much cadmium – a toxic-heavy metal – should be used in fertiliser, and the outcome will eventually affect every farm in the EU. It will also affect anyone wanting to import fertiliser from the EU after Brexit, but by then we’ll have no say over it.

There was a vote on copyright reform, which is designed to give publishers more control over how their content is used digitally. It’s gone too far and could remove links to the quality Press on social media sites, allowing ‘fake news’ and the conspiracy theorist blogs that appeared during the indyref and EUref to prosper.

Tory, Labour and SNP MEPs from the UK are fighting it – but they lose their seat at the negotiating table next March.

For the people who work in Brussels and shape policy across Europe, Brexit is a decision made in the past while they look to the future.

One seasoned observer said the EU member states have never been more united on this – they are sticking together.

And they are sticking together because of the impact on Ireland.  The warnings of a negative impact on the UK economy were made clear during the EUref, and ignored by voters, but the people of Ireland should not have to suffer as a result.

If Brussels is shrugging its shoulders when it comes to the UK, it is putting its arms around the shoulders of Ireland.

“We want to make it clear again and again that Ireland is not alone,” Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in Dublin last week.

It’s not what Theresa May, David Davis or Liam Fox says that interests Europe, it’s what Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says. If he isn’t happy, the EU isn’t happy.

The UK Government can come up with as many inventive solutions to the border problem as it wants; it will only happen if the Irish agree.

The ‘Baileys test’ must be met: millions of gallons of milk travel unhindered across the border during the production of Irish cream liquor, and that must continue to be the case.

The solution, to everyone in Brussels at least, is obvious: the UK can remain in both the Single Market and a customs union. That’s achieved by being in the European Economic Area.

Earlier this month, Brussels’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier confirmed this model is possible to a Green MEP.

It would require some sort of renegotiation – the EEA agreement does not cover agriculture, which is vital to preventing a hard border in Northern Ireland.

But while tailoring for off-the-shelf options is possible; new bespoke deals are not.

Labour’s suggestion that Britain can somehow negotiate Single Market access while also securing changes to the principle of freedom of movement is simply dismissed.

The Norway-style option of EEA membership is opposed by Jeremy Corbyn because it would make the UK a ‘rule-taker’ not a rule-maker. The Eurocrats agree that UK influence would reduce in this scenario, but that’s not their problem.

The UK would become a ‘lobbying nation’, holding joint parliamentary summits like Norway does in a desperate attempt to influence decisions.

But, despite that, most in Brussels still can’t understand why the UK would consider shunning this option when the only alternative – apart from reversing Brexit – is a ‘no deal’ scenario.

Airbus last week explained in stark terms what that means: one of the country’s largest companies which employs 14,000 people leaving the UK. If that threat to jobs isn’t enough to spur Labour into action, it’s hard to understand what will.

So it looks more and more likely that we are heading for a ‘no deal’ option.

Liam Fox has insisted that Theresa May is not bluffing when she threatens to walk way without a deal.

Nobody in Brussels thinks she’s bluffing anyway. They have laid out the options and have moved on while they wait for her to decide.

If this is what the Prime Minister presents to MPs this autumn, what happens next is a huge unknown.

Will Labour and Tory rebels join forces to defeat the government? Will Theresa May be forced to resign? Could a two-thirds parliamentary majority be assembled to trigger a General Election?

Or will, as the tens of thousands who marched in London on Saturday demanded, there be a ‘people’s vote’ on whether to proceed with Brexit? One poll at the weekend suggested there is now a narrow majority for Remain.

Brussels may have accepted that Britain is leaving, but it remains to be seen if the people of Britain are ready to accept the terms of that departure.