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It’s not a good day for May

With the clock ticking, Westminster has to adjust around 1,000 statutory instruments to bring what is now EU law into line with the legislative needs of a Brexit Britain

Deep in the eurocracy that makes Brussels and the European Union (EU) tick, there’s a body called the European Consilium. In a nutshell, it’s the secretariat that produces all the paperwork, reports, spreadsheets and the planning that ensures the 28 member-states, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the President of the European Council, and all of arms of those bodies, work in tandem.

It produces reports in the 24 official languages of the EU, of which three — English, French and German — are, in the words of the eurocrats, “procedural” because they have a higher working status. For the record, the European parliament meets in Strasburg, allows debate and recognises any of the 24 official languages for debate and discussion.

Through all the diplomatic conventions and convolutions that combine the entire European apparatus of states together, the whole thing works, and the European Consilium is spectacularly efficient at what it does.

Officially, yesterday’s summit in Brussels was a meeting of the European Council, which is a fancy way of saying the 28 heads of governments across the EU had a sit-down with Jean-Claude Juncker, who is the President of the European Commission, and Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council. Simply put, the Commission is like the Cabinet that oversees the work of the EU, and has commissioners for such things as agriculture, the environment, or transport. The European Council is the political body or leadership that is made up the individual 28 governments. The European Parliament is directly elected by all the member states.

According to the agenda, “The European Council will look at a number of the most pressing issues, including migration, defence, foreign affairs and digitalisation.” There was also a separate note, one that is a eurocratic understatement: “The European Council (Article 50) will review the latest developments related to Brexit.”

Simply put, it means the EU27, Juncker and Tusk were supposed to ask United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May, and her attendant officials and private secretaries, to unplug their simultaneous translation earpieces, get up out of their pleather seats, and, in the bastardised words of Shakespeare, “exeunt stage left”.

While May is outside, or heading back to RAF Northolt in London on her government jet, or getting her nails done, there’ll be a collective decision, easily made, to say that she and her government in Britain have failed to do enough so far to expand the Brexit talks.

Nine months ago, if not before, when it became apparent that the Brits were actually serious about following through on their legally non-binding referendum — (under British constitutional conventions, parliament, not the people holds power) — to leave the EU, the EU27, Juncker and Tusk, agreed a joint bargaining position.

It took less than 90 minutes for all to agree that three conditions had to be met first before the talks on Brexit would expand. These three conditions were: Protecting the rights of the three million EU citizens who live in the UK, and the 1.5 million Brits who live across the EU; making sure that the border between the Republic of Ireland to the south and Northern Ireland remained open, without security of customs checks that might re-ignite the political and sectarian divisions on the island; and making sure the Brits paid their fair share of money for leaving.

May formally gave notice on March 29 that the Brits were leaving, and that the two-year timetable was set. Come March 30, 2019, it would be a new UK and a new EU. Somehow, she couldn’t leave it to the end of March. The optics of Britain setting out on a new path on April 1 — April Fool’s Day — wouldn’t go down well.

So far, there have been five rounds of formal negotiations between Brussels and London, and their start was delayed because of that small matter of the UK general election. May had it in her mind that the talks would begin the week of June 12, right after she won a strong mandate to negotiate the best deal for Britain on June 8. Err, it didn’t quite work out that way. Instead of talking tough with Brussels, she was asking politely in Belfast if Arlene Foster and the Democratic Unionist Party would please prop her up for the princely sum of £1 billion (Dh4.84 billion). The EU talks were delayed for two weeks, and instead of an Iron Lady, the eurocrats were dealing with a lame duck.

Any hope that May had or has of getting a politically acceptable deal goes out of the window.

So far, she has offered €20 billion (Dh86.88 billion) to leave. It’s nowhere near enough, and if she comes back to the Brussels table with an offer that doubles that, the EU might begin to think of taking nudging her up a few billion more. Every euro more she offers, the hard-line Brexiteers sharpen their knives all the more. Any euro is a euro too much for Brussels, they would say.

In a last-ditch effort to try and get the Europeans to agree to move on to wider talks on trade and a possible transition deal, May desperately worked the phones to Paris, Berlin and Dublin last week, and fly to Brussels for a two-hour dinner meeting with the top EU leadership.

With the clock ticking, Westminster has to adjust and encompass between 800 and 1,000 statutory instruments to bring what is now EU law into line with the legislative needs of a Britain free of European legal and regulatory ties. London also estimates that there are 5,155 EU rules and 899 directives from Brussels among 19,000 pieces of European law now in force. These rules and directives from the EU have the same legal effect now as British laws, but will cease to apply to the UK when it leaves.

Right now, she doesn’t know what sort of deal, if any she’ll have.

And those phone calls to Paris, Berlin and Dublin?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to disagree. The last thing Merkel wants is any other EU member state thinking that it might leave the EU, so the harder the deal imposed on Britain, the better.

French President Emmanuel Macron wants a stronger Europe, one with greater integration. The sooner the better the Brits are out, then he can move forward with building a stronger Europe. Besides, with the Brits out, he believes Paris is best-positioned to take over clearing of €1 trillion in daily euro transactions that now go through the City of London’s financial institutions. Taking those 10,000 jobs to Paris would be a nice coup. The tax revenues wouldn’t be too bad either.

And in Dublin, with a general election on the cards for new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the last thing he needs is to agree to some half-baked plan that might keep the border moving freely. And don’t forget too that with the Brits gone, Ireland would be well-positioned to get some of those London jobs. After all, it’s in the same time zone, the equivalent legal system, a society that’s not too dissimilar — and the Irish will be the only ones where English, one of the three procedural languages, is naturally spoken.

It’s not a good day for May.

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