The latest Brexit drama centers on Prime Minister Theresa May, the UK and EU hoping for hints of progress, an ill-fated dinner in Brussels and Machiavellian intrigue.
This last week was all about Theresa May. We saw the British prime minister in Brussels talking to four flower pots. Maybe because nobody will listen to her in her own government? Or was she silently praying to the God of small things to make her horrible day, the awful EU summit and the whole dreadful Brexit thing go away? Maybe May was considering quitting politics entirely, just getting up and leaving for a quiet life in the country with husband Philip. But as the dutiful daughter of a clergyman she stayed the course. History will decide whether she did herself, her country and the rest of us a favor or not.
This was the week of the summit meeting where the EU and Britain were slowly getting hints of progress in the Brexit talks, with the hope of making enough headway by Christmas. Member states gave the green light for internal talks about the possible nature of a future deal. That was almost no news disguised as moderately good news.
Loose talk or Machiavellian intrigue?
Too much talk seems to be one of Brussels' problems. When May invited herself to dinner last week in the EU capital, it was clear what she wanted from Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker. It was a last ditch attempt to sway him and to move the Brexit talks to phase 2: "Future relationship." During dinner, however, Juncker moved nothing but salt and pepper across the table. Life is not that simple.
Much more fun than this failed bit of personal diplomacy was the aftermath. The German weekly Sonntags FAZ newspaper wrote about the evening in worrying detail. May looked "anxious, despondent and discouraged," it reported, and she was pleading for help, had rings under her eyes and seemed very tired. The likely source of the reporting was quickly identified. It could be none other than Juncker's "eminence gris" and German cabinet head, Martin Selmayr, who had leaked these telling details.
But Selmayr reacted furiously. "I deny that we leaked this, that Juncker ever said this and that we are punitive on Brexit," he said. "It's an attempt to frame the EU side and undermine talks."
Selmayr is rumored of having a track record of leaks. He is suspected to be the source of the harsh comments Juncker made at similar dinner with May in London earlier in the year that went public. If he did it once, would he not do it again? The UK's Brexit minister, David Davis, is reported to have accused Selmayr of being behind the leak, pointing out that there were only "six people in the room." What would Selmayr's motive be?
Davis is a genuine Brexiteer, as opposed to May. He is still rumored to be a potential successor to the prime minister. He hates the way Brexit talks are shaping up and he was in the room. Would anybody think such a piece of Machiavellian intrigue was beyond the British chief negotiator?
Still about a good deal or no deal
The EU believed it was doing May a favor in offering preliminary musings about the future. And this almost-progress must have encouraged business leaders in the UK. They are now writing letters to the government begging for clarity on Brexit almost daily. And their best hope was the transition period that May had announced in Florence. But in Parliament, the prime minister slapped everybody down. "There can be no implementation period," she said, "until the UK has settled its future partnership with the EU."
It has a certain logic if you call it implementation instead of transition. But it shatters the hope that a transition phase could simply delay the looming cliff edge Brexit. With the economy tumbling down the hill helter-skelter, the fall may already be starting. As Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein tweeted last week: "Just left Frankfurt. Great meetings, great weather, really enjoyed it. Good, because I'll be spending a lot more time there." The grass may be greener on the other side of the channel.
EU Council President Donald Tusk dug the knife in by saying, "it's in fact up to London how this will end, with a good deal, no deal or no Brexit." Oops, the latter option seems off the table but is still a possibility if the EoB's, that is, the enemies of Brexit, get their act together.
Return of McCarthyism?
Astonishing in its blatancy is a letter that Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris wrote to all British universities, asking for the names of "Professors teaching European affairs, with particular regard to Brexit." The lawmaker also wanted to have the syllabus and the links to online lectures.
Academics reacted furiously, calling it a sinister attempt to bring back the thought police and McCarthyism. "What happened to this great country?" anti-Brexit Campaigner Gina Miller asked. The answer is Brexit.