What EU diplomats told me about Brexit was painful to hear

  • One diplomat of a medium-sized country said to me that a country 'we used to regard as strong and stable' now has a politics that 'is in chaos'

  • Chuka Umunna MP

A23 safety walk

Over the last week I have been meeting senior diplomats from across Europe, taking in the views of countries large and small, from east to west, to get a sense of where the EU27 – sitting across the negotiating table from the UK – think we are heading, and what they expect in the next three, crucial months.

They are clear: don’t expect any surprises at Salzburg, where leaders of the member states of the EU – the European Council – will gather for an informal summit on Wednesday. There will be no change in the EU’s position, and the guidelines they have given to their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, are unlikely to move much, if at all.

However, there is recognition Theresa May faces a massive challenge getting any deal through the House of Commons, and that she has very limited room for manoeuvre. The EU27 are also conscious the summit takes place shortly before the Conservative Party conference and they do not want to give the Brexit elite, led by Boris Johnson, any ammunition against May.

The conductor of the orchestra of European leaders we’ll see in Mozart’s home town is president of the EU Council, Donald Tusk. The 32-year-old chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, will be providing the venue where yet another symphony in the Brexit drama will play out.

The first movement of the symphony the orchestra will perform during their tour of Salzburg takes place on Wednesday evening, at the Felsenreitschule theatre, where leaders will meet for an informal dinner. Interestingly, the theatre was one of the locations for The Sound of Music – it is the place from where the Von Trapp family fled the Nazis for Switzerland. How ironic that the main topic of discussion will be migration.

The second movement in the Salzburg symphony will be performed on Thursday morning, when the orchestra gathers at the Mozarteum University for a working session to discuss internal security issues including police and judicial cooperation and cybersecurity. That will be followed by the final movement – a working lunch where May will have to pack her violin and leave so the others can look at the score on the state of Brexit talks and the next steps in the negotiation.

We can expect lots of positive, uplifting tunes from Salzburg about progress being made and good prospects for an agreement later this autumn: “the language will all be positive”, I’ve been told.

If there is to be any change in the EU’s position, it is likely to come at the formal summit of EU leaders from 18 to 19 October in Brussels, or at a further summit around the 15 to 16 November. In particular, a change in the EU27’s position is only likely if Paris and Berlin decide their interest in wrapping up the issue by the end of the year demands more flexibility.

Despite attempts to divide them, the EU27 speak with one voice and illustrate a degree of collective responsibility that has undoubtedly strengthened their position. There is quiet satisfaction their discipline in keeping to the same message since negotiations began – a tactic which eludes the Tory cabinet – and their determination not to give the Brexit-supporting parts of the British media fodder to claim the UK is being bullied by the EU, have been successful. To the extent negotiations are going badly, it is clear from the polls who the British people hold responsible for the chaos: the UK government, not EU belligerence.

There is sadness the UK establishment, which they used to look on with envy for its ability to maintain stability and common sense at home while maintaining standing abroad, appears to have lost its bearings.

One diplomat of a medium-sized country told me a nation they “used to regard as strong and stable” now has a politics that “is in chaos”.  As a proud, patriotic Brit, perhaps the most painful thing to hear was the judgement of one ambassador that “you are exposing your weaknesses to the outside world on a daily basis”. That is a damning indictment of May’s regime.

Several countries’ politicians tell me the unfolding disaster which is Brexit has led to a material reduction in support for the idea of leaving the EU in their countries. Just as claims by Brexiters a deal will be the “easiest … in human history” – as international trade secretary Liam Fox put it – have turned to dust, so have claims by populists of the right and left in other countries, that exiting the EU provides easy answers to their problems.

Brexit has illustrated in technicolour to the peoples of other EU nations how complex the process of leaving is whilst highlighting the huge benefits which come with EU membership, and which only become evident when you are in the process of giving them up.

A good example is Denmark, which joined the EU in the same year as the UK. I have Danish family and I know from occasional visits to Copenhagen there is a strong strain of Euroscepticism in the country. But the most recent poll carried out by the European Commission’s Eurobarometer shows a record level of support for the institution in Denmark, with 84 per cent of respondents believing EU membership advantageous.

The outstanding issue which still needs to be resolved is that of the Irish border. You could argue it is both the strongest and weakest part of the EU’s negotiating position. But as ever, Brexiters ignore the domestic politics of other EU countries. It may well be the case a no-deal Brexit leads to a hard border but if so, the Irish government will be able to lay the blame elsewhere – no Irish government could sign a deal which in the view of its people could precipitate a return to violence.

Few think the talks will be sufficiently advanced to finalise a deal in October, so the consensus view among those involved in negotiations is that a special meeting of the EU Council will be convened in mid-November to finalise a deal. If a way forward can be found on the Irish border, there almost certainly will be a draft Withdrawal Agreement reached there which will be sent to the House of Commons and the European Parliament for ratification.

If not, there is an expectation the issue will be dealt with and concluded at the EU Council meeting in mid-December. Senior diplomats are adamant the process will not be allowed to carry on into January because of the desire to get this issue off the table before European election campaigns start in earnest at the beginning of next year. The EU27 do not want Brexit to be a European election issue.

One message is unchanged since I first wrote about the EU27’s take on the negotiations: the door is open to the UK to change its mind. If we seek an extension to the Article 50 process to allow for a People’s Vote on the final deal, there will be unanimous agreement to grant it their side of the table.