Brexit talks are deadlocked, and British diplomats are attempting to sow disunity within the EU in the hope of a better deal. Meanwhile, UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson takes to the water to woo eastern EU allies.
It was just another dinner in Brussels – routine, really. The date, suddenly appearing last Friday in EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's diary. "Oh, Theresa is coming to dine with me, what a pleasant surprise," he must have thought. Only to betray his real mind when on Monday he promised a "postmortem" to journalists. And indeed, it emerged after dinner that things at and on the table had been rather dead.
Initially all eyes were on Theresa May's handbag. Was it big enough to contain a checkbook? But alas the prime minister came to the table empty handed. Downing Street was not willing to commit to any more money than Theresa had promised in Florence: Britain would pay their fee during a transitional period of two years after Brexit, which coincides with the EU budget period. Basta, more or less.
The communiqué after dinner was subsequently drier than yesterday's baguette. One had reviewed the progress made in talks so far and the meeting was "constructive." That means nothing whatsoever had been achieved, and all the hugs and kisses could not hide that fact. The member states were not willing to proceed to talks about the interim period, let alone consider the special future relationship. Theresa May had wasted an evening and a trip to Brussels on a mission impossible.
But whose fault is it anyway?
The pro-Brexit front sees the fault for this dire state of affairs firmly in Paris and Berlin. Out of bloody-mindedness or greed, the French and the Germans were blocking well-deserved progress because for them, it's all about the money. Disgraceful, really.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier on the other hand emerged as the good guy in this
playbook. The Frenchman had last Thursday in his most lugubrious manner stated that talks were deadlocked. In his heart he was ready to move them along, but was being impeded in this noble ambition by some evil member states. The latest version of a leaked summit paper suggests no further progress can be expected before Christmas, which seems the suitable time for presents, political and otherwise. Until then, British diplomats will continue trying to play off the commission against the EU members and these against each other. But so far, all this dividing and conquering has shown no results – they must be losing their touch.
Boris tries to rock the boat
The UK's foreign minister really loves to try his hand at this ancient British art. Last Sunday, he invited all of eight Eastern European colleagues to Chevening, his weekend retreat, for a little boating party. He thought they might succumb to his charms and be ready to push the boat out for Britain at the European summit this week. Why they should do so, however, remains unclear. It's Warsaw, Bucharest and the others who have a lot to lose through Brexit, particularly the right to free movement or to work and live in Britain. In the end, only one hardy soul went rowing with Boris.
Undeterred, the foreign minister on Monday tried to foster Theresa May's efforts when again meeting his European colleagues in Luxembourg. Europe is such a travelling circus that animal images must spring readily to mind. "Let's put the tiger in the tank," he demanded in front of reporters. Remember that Boris Johnson only recently attempted to roar like a lion at the Tory party conference. He clearly seems to be channeling his inner Bear Gryllis these days.
Meanwhile in Westminster...
Meanwhile in Westminster, plotters from the Labour party are working on a big spoiler. They are rallying support among the conservative Remainers in a bid to scupper Theresa May"s Brexit. They want a vote on the deal, no matter what shape or form it's in – a threat to easily overturn her fragile majority. That would put the cat among the pigeons. They say it's about their democratic rights, but wasn't this issue decided once and for all by the Brexit referendum?
Truth will out
Philip Hammond is the homo economicus in this government. He is the man trying to remain rational and think about the bottom line. He is definitely not one of the ragers and ravers of Brexit. All the more disturbing, then, was his interview on Sky news, where all of a sudden his innermost thoughts seemed to be breaking through.
"We (in Britain) all have the same agenda", said the chancellor, "the enemy, the opponents are out there. They're on the other side of the negotiating table. Those are the people we have to negotiate with, negotiate hard to get the best deal for Britain". Enemies? What happened to friends and partners, fellow Europeans and neighbors? It's a painful moment when the mask slips. And as things stand in Brussels, it may not be the best of times to lose friends and alienate people.