Theresa May has less than two weeks to come up with a plan to foot the Brexit bill. Meanwhile, Ireland is playing hardball over an open border and Milton Keynes has had its European City of Culture hopes dashed.
Behind the smiles of Donald Tusk and Theresa May this week there seems to be cold hearts and empty hands. Had the British prime minister not brought her checkbook? Then the European Council president could not really do anything for her. If May did not promise enough money for divorce proceedings, the silver teapot, the record collection and the dog would stay with the EU. May had a "positive feeling" that both sides wanted to move forward together, she gushed after the meeting. But Brussels was unmoved: "Huge challenges" remain, Tusk explained.
But Tusk has not yet shut the door: You have 10 more days, he told May. That was after EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier had already given his British counterpart, David Davis, two more weeks. But this time it's for real: If May does not sign up to pay a large part of the Brexit bill and offer a solution for the Irish question on December 4, it will be over. That means "no progress" at the decisive December summit and talks will be stalled until the New Year. 2018 would begin with doom and gloom.
Irish plays hardball
Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has been talking tough these last few weeks, saying "Ireland will not be ignored in the Brexit negotiations." The only way to avoid a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland would be what EU-nerds call "regulatory closeness," according to an Irish proposal. That means Northern Ireland would have to stay in the customs union or become some sort of special economic zone, like Hong Kong, in order to keep electricity flowing, sheep wandering and trucks rolling between the two sides.
A howl of outrage was the answer from the Brexiteers in London and the Unionist DUP, the junior coalition partners in May's government: This would look like the first step to a reunification of Ireland, it's a plot by Sinn Fein, they ranted. Some seem to carry conspiracy theories a bit far. Sinn Fein may be responsible for a lot of things, but Brexit is not among them.
In the meantime things are serious for the government in Dublin. It is fighting for its life, under threat from an old police scandal and might yet come weakened to the December summit. But there is an iron determination not to be steamrolled by Brexit. The plucky Irish are making a stand and history shows they won't be taken for granted.
Chaos? What chaos?
In order to spice up proceedings in Brussels, Irish diplomats leaked a paper with amusing details about the ineptitude of British negotiations. David Davis had traveled to Paris in order to unblock French resistance. But in his meeting with ministers he did not mention Brexit at all, and instead talked about the weather, foreign relations and the price of milk. The French were baffled. Eastern European countries think Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is "unimpressive," others see the government in London in chaos and the country divided. Latvia says the whole UK is leaving a bad impression. And so on.
A new bus
Pollsters say the infamous red double decker bus, promising 350 million pounds (€390 million, $470 million) a week, or around 20 billion pounds a year to the National Health Service (NHS) instead of paying it to the EU (fake news!!!), was decisive for many people in the referendum. Now the red bus is back, only with a different message. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond had announced in his budget 3 billion pounds for Brexit preparations. On top of 700 million already set aside for new border personnel, a huge parking lot for trucks in Dover and other contingencies. The endlessly ailing NHS gets only 1.8 billion. The Brexiteers seriously got their figures mixed up, it seems. This cannot be what people voted for.
Milton Keynes the capital of culture, seriously?
"We are not turning our backs on Europe, yet this looks like they are turning their backs on us," Ian Stewart, the conservative MP for Milton Keynes, said angrily. Did we fundamentally misunderstand something about Brexit and what happened in Milton Keynes? The city had, together with Nottingham, Dundee and Leeds, put in a bid to become the European City of Culture 2023. The local councils had prepared stunning programs, glossy websites, snappy slogans. But the European commission told them that, sorry, they were not eligible to participate in the Culture City contest anymore. Because in 2023 the UK will have exited the EU.
Downing Street disagreed strongly with the decision in Brussels, pointing out that Istanbul and Reykjavik were former Cities of Culture, and not EU members themselves. But Brussels pulled out the rulebook where it says that a city has to be in the EU, a candidate country or in the EEA. Which holds true for Turkey and Iceland, but seems an unlikely prospect for Britain.
Labor MP Tom Watson was also sorely disappointed, saying: "The government must now explain how they intend to ensure that Brexit does not leave us culturally isolated from Europe." Maybe some new organization should be invented, connecting all European countries? That's called the European Union. Such a pity then that Brexit means Brexit.