The EU reacts

Across the channel, the reaction to the PM’s statements at Lancaster House and at Davos has been, unsurprisingly, more mixed. Sticking to their usual position, both the Council and Commission were at pains to remind anyone who will listen that nothing has changed fundamentally. There can still be no negotiations until Article 50 is triggered. But those who have responded have tentatively welcomed the PM’s clarity on single market and customs union whilst questioning her intentions.

It is on customs union – where the PM declared that the UK would be outside but with a bespoke, associate status of some kind – that there has been plenty of commentary that this is just more of her attempt to have her cake and eat it.

May’s desire to position the UK as a great, global trading nation, leading the way and forging bold new relationships with partners across the globe, means there is no choice other than to be outside of the customs union. Bilateral free trade agreements belong only to those outside of it. But May is clear that a huge proportion of UK trade comes in and out of the EU, and that any deal that doesn’t offer smooth, easy flow of goods in both directions will be damaging to UK businesses. So naturally she wants to secure an arrangement which delivers very little change. Suddenly this feels rather like a new battle-front.

And the criticism hasn’t just come from the usual quarters. Traditional UK allies – like the Netherlands and the Czech Republic – haven’t minced their words either: ‘The UK will pay a huge price for Brexit’, ‘Brexit must be inferior to membership’, ‘there can be no cherry-picking here’. This is a further reminder that the UK won’t be able to rely on the alliances we have depended on during our EU membership when it comes to the Brexit negotiations.

No member state can afford to let Brexit look easy or smooth, especially not those states who have increasingly vocal Eurosceptic movements at home. (The Dutch election is rife with calls for ‘Nexit’ to follow Brexit. Unlikely given the way Dutch coalitions are formed, but having a real impact on the rhetoric during the election all the same).

In the European Parliament, one of the trickiest customers the UK will have to deal with in this negotiation and those with the final say over ratifying any deal reached, Verhofstadt led the way with his commentary. He says the days of the UK taking Europe a la carte are over. This reflects a long held frustration by many EU insiders that during its membership of the EU Britain picked and chose what it wanted (outside the Euro, outside Schengen, outside many of the judicial cooperation instruments, rebate on budgetary contributions etc). Those insiders see May’s stance now as an extension of that same attitude: simply moving outside the Union whilst trying to opt back in to the best bits.

In her Lancaster House speech, May’s opening remarks went some way towards reaching out to European partners. She reminded them that the UK vote on 23 June was not a rejection of shared European values; that taking back parliamentary control in the UK did not mean that European countries weren’t vibrant democracies in their own right and reiterated the line that the UK is leaving the EU, not leaving Europe.

But she ended the speech with a pretty serious shot across the bows: that a bad deal worse than no deal, and the UK would be prepared to walk away, leaving behind something that was no good for Europe.

Tough talk, clear goals, but still lots and lots to be worked out.

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