Why Brussels is keeping quiet on May’s White Paper

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Katya Adler Europe editor @BBCkatyaadler on Twitter

Even the president of the United States now sees fit to weigh in on the Brexit path Theresa May is taking.

Donald Trump has said, amongst other things, that if the prime minister is successful in her plan – formalised on Thursday in a White Paper – then that would make a future trade deal with the US far less likely.

So how come key player Brussels remains so uncannily quiet about the paper?

Brussels badgered the UK for months and months and months about coming up with a detailed proposal on how it envisions the future EU-UK relationship after Brexit. Now they have it, surely they have an opinion about it?

As far as official responses go, the most we got from Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, was that he and his colleagues now need time to analyse the White Paper in detail.

On the one hand: fair enough. It is a very dense document.

But I feel the EU is hiding behind the paper’s 98 pages of Brexit tech-talk.

In private, EU diplomats make no secret at all of their rejection of large chunks of the White Paper.

Brussels has said since the beginning of Brexit negotiations that the UK can’t pick and choose the “best parts” of EU membership and walk away from the rest when it leaves. Yet that’s exactly how the White Paper is interpreted in EU circles.

There is no way Michel Barnier will accept it as is.

For Theresa May to get that “deep and special” access to the EU in trade terms, Brussels will certainly expect more concessions. But EU leaders are biding their time. Trying to calculate not if, but when, and how to get their criticisms across.

They’re very aware of the febrile political atmosphere in the UK and think if they make a quick comment or criticism of the White Paper, they’d be adding fuel to the fire.

So if the EU is so keen for a soft Brexit – (of course we know, deep down, it would prefer no Brexit at all) – what concessions is Brussels prepared to make now to help shore up the prime minister’s position in the political maelstrom at home?

Worryingly few, is the answer if you’re a fan of Theresa May or her White Paper.

The EU still believes it holds pretty much all the cards in Brexit negotiations. I don’t expect real whiffs of EU concessions before the last minute of the 11th hour this autumn.

Can Theresa May hang on till then? And if she can, is she politically strong enough to strike a deal with Brussels and then sell it back home?

Frankly, no one knows – and in the meantime, Brussels is stepping up contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit. Not because the EU or Downing Street wants that – they really do not – but because the time allotted under EU law for a withdrawal agreement to be agreed and signed off by both parties is fast running out.

In the meantime, EU diplomats try to sound upbeat: the White Paper is a great springboard from which to re-start face-to-face Brexit negotiations, they say.

Those talks begin again behind closed doors on Monday.

 

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