UK leaders are finding their European friends in a time of need. Meanwhile, there is white smoke in Brussels for the transition deal and a Brexit joke from France has fallen flat in London.
This is a time when you really need your friends. After the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, the UK needs to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression and it's looking to its allies in Europe for support. How convenient for Foreign Minister Boris Johnson that he can still travel to Brussels without further ado and meet with his EU colleagues at their routine monthly meeting. And how reassuring that after some initial misgivings, they seemed to come together.
The same holds true for Prime Minister Theresa May, who will arrive at this week's summit where Donald Trump's trade war as well as Russia will be high on the agenda. She will be amongst partners because the UK remains an EU member for another year. But all that is going to change with Brexit, even if some kind of security cooperation will be agreed upon. The question is how the Brexiteers' favorite mantra measures up to the current situation: "Take back control" over Novichok? Only chief illusionist Boris keeps insinuating that things will carry on as before. Alone at night, however, some people must have some uncomfortable thoughts.
We have a transition deal
White smoke emerged from the EU commission's press room on Monday and we saw UK Brexit Secretary David Davis in a buoyant mood. The "implementation period" was finally agreed, and Britain was getting ready "to begin life outside of the EU." Why he and his government keep calling these 21 months extra time an "implementation" and not "transition" period is anybody's guess. It is clear that there will be nothing to implement after Brexit day on March 29, 2019, because formal talks about the future relationship between the UK and EU will only begin at that date.
But that is mere semantics. What we have seen in these negotiations seems to be a rather amusing pattern. First the British side throws up a lot of demands and draws red lines. Then negotiations seem to stall for months. This is followed by a flurry of hectic activity just before the deadline. And at the last moment, British negotiators will back down on all points, only to finally emerge lauding the great success of having achieved the very things the EU had offered in the first place. It is a triumph of political salesmanship.
The result is exactly as foreseen. The UK will after Brexit get extra time until December 31, 2020, up to which point their EU status stays largely unchanged. They will of course no longer participate in decision making but all other aspects continue as before. EU citizens coming to the UK will have the same rights, the borders will stay open, goods will flow, rules and fishing quotas will largely continue as they are. The Scottish government is already howling about "treason" because London had promised to take back control of British fishing.
But most importantly for UK envoy Davis: Britain may begin to negotiate and sign trade deals with third countries, even if these can only be implemented after 2020. The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, however, has sounded a warning note. There are 750 EU agreements with third countries which Britain has to replicate. It is a considerable amount of work. The French diplomat loves an understatement. And he also has cautioned that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
The reason is that the transition period hinges on the divorce agreement that must be finalized in autumn. And that signature is dependent on a solution for the Irish border question. And everybody knows this can logically not be solved within the UK's red lines. But who knows what will happen, we have seen so many red lines come and go.
The company has had its headquarters in Britain for around 90 years. Lord Lever, one of its founding fathers in the 19th century, built a model village for his workers with the delightful name "Port Sunlight," named after the firms bestselling soap. But now Unilever is leaving for Rotterdam.
It is the biggest corporation to leave since the UK's decision to exit the EU. Unilever produces consumer goods from soaps to soups and they are also the home of Marmite, a yeasty spread as traditionally British as warm ale.
Unilever CEO Paul Polman did his best to soften the blow. Part of production will stay in Britain. A majority of the business was legally located in Rotterdam already, because, among other things, tax structures in the Netherlands were more favorable. Of course it nothing to do with Brexit...
A joke falls flat
They must have had so much fun making this up. The Council of Normandy, a northern region in France with quite a number of British inhabitants, thought an advertising campaign might help them to profit from Brexit. They created a mock-up of venerable newspaper "The Times" and suggested business owners from across the channel might "want to vote with their feet and leave post-Brexit fears behind."
Describing themselves as business friendly and Normandy a great place to live, local politicians tried to lure companies to move to their region. And to sex things up they drew a heart around their ad saying "Hot entrepreneur wanted," promising beautiful coastal walks and sun-drenched lunches with flowing wine. This is despite the fact that it rains in Normandy at least as much as in southern England and boozy lunches have long since gone out of fashion in France, as everywhere else.
Apart from that, the campaign seems like a harmless piece of Brexit fun, mildly amusing with a whiff of college humor. The reception in the UK, however, was a decidedly sniffy "How dare they?" Nevertheless Normandy paid up and their jolly adverts are appearing in the British press. But Transport for London, the organization operating tubes and buses in the UK capital, is not condoning it. They say the ads breach rules on "images or messages which relate to matters of public controversy or sensitivity." It seems Brexit may be hurting some peoples' sense of humor.