Hopefully UK-savvy readers can opine as to why the Financial Times has gone soft in the head on its Brexit coverage this week. This matters because for the most part, the pink paper has been generally sound on Brexit, which is rare in the UK. It has also done important original reporting, such as flagging very early on how the UK’s Customs IT systems would be unable to handle a Brexit and on the huuge number of international agreements that the UK would need to replace when exited them by virtue of leaving the EU.
Admittedly, the Financial Times has run planted stories, like its occasional pieces of what City lobbyist are trying to get the Government to do, but it’s been pretty even handed in those write-ups. It has also run two, maybe three optimistic stories that seems out of synch with the trajectory of events, of the “Ys, the EU is gonna be nice to the UK” ilk, based on reports from “EU diplomats”. In one story, the Financial Times named their countries, and they were clearly too uninfluential and too few in number to make a difference. I debunked one in passing and ignored the others, in part because they weren’t given prominent placement.
But the Financial Times has started pushing the line, hard, that the EU is going to give the UK concessions to get a withdrawal deal done, supposedly because EU leaders want to keep May in office as well as appease their business leaders. The newspaper published two articles in this vein this week, each as the lead story in the US edition.
From Wednesday’s piece, Brussels willing to accept fudge on vital Brexit pact:
The EU is willing to “fudge” crucial Brexit negotiations — and offer Britain a vague blueprint for future ties with the bloc — if it helps Theresa May avoid a “no deal” outcome and win parliamentary backing for a withdrawal treaty.
The development comes as the UK prime minister steps up talks with EU leaders, including a meeting with France’s Emmanuel Macron this week.
Since the start of talks last year, Brussels, Berlin and Paris have stressed the need for a “political declaration” on future relations that would unambiguously make clear what kind of trade relationship the EU and the UK will have after Brexit….
British officials are convinced that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is helping soften the EU’s approach after a more positive meeting with Mrs May earlier this month. One UK official said the chancellor was ready to give Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, “more freedom” to close a deal.
Translation: The Financial Times has decided to throw its institutional weight behind the Government’s latest fantasy.
The Guardian begged to differ on Thursday in German sources deny Brexit deal offer amid warning from pro-EU camp:
Reports that Germany is willing to offer Theresa May a vague Brexit deal so as to prevent the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal have set alarm bells ringing among anti-Brexit campaigners in the UK and prompted denials from German sources…
German sources insisted that despite several reports from Brussels and EU officials, no instruction had been issued to the commission to back a vague blueprint, adding that clear guarantees about the planned future trading and security relationship would be required by Berlin.
Note that most of the story was about the Remainers’ freakout if the rumors were true.
And today’s, headlined EU shows sign of softer position on Irish backstop. From the text:
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, declared in an article published in 20 newspapers across Europe that he was now willing to “improve the text” of his proposal for a so-called backstop solution to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Mr Barnier also promised that the EU would seek a relationship with the UK that was “unprecedented in scope and depth” — seen in London as a sign that Brussels may go beyond existing models of co-operation with third countries.
This is sheer lunacy. I read a translated version of the Barnier op-ed in El Pais (hat tip Ignacio). He said absolutely nothing new. The Financial Times seems to have caught the Government’s disease of hearing what it wants to hear.
Richard North has ignored the Financial Times’ spin, deemed the UK to have gone past the point of no return on Brexit (which in pilot terms, means a crash or hard landing is baked in). Politico, which keeps close tabs on Brexit developments and hasn’t found anything newsworthy in May’s grand tour, roused itself to issue what looks like a rebuttal of the Financial Times’ story. First from its daily European newsletter:
THERESA MAY GETS A PRIVATE LESSON: British Prime Minister Theresa May has another chance to hear what the Continent has been telling her all along (including Germany, in which her government seems to have seen reason for fresh hope, judging from reports in the British press about a would-be Merkel about-face). May will meet Emmanuel Macron today at Fort de Brégançon, the French president’s holiday retreat.
The EU’s line has consistently been that a new, special, deep, unheard-of partnership with the Union is more than welcome — as long as it doesn’t harm the integrity of the single market (plus Britain caving on the backstop to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland). Some say that with a friendlier tone than others, but the core message has never changed ….
Michel Barnier, for his part, said in the nicest way possible, in an opinion piece for a range of European newspapers, that the Chequers white paper won’t fly as it currently stands.
And from the Politico story Brexit deal off the menu at May-Macron summit:
Theresa May can look forward to an excellent dinner at Emmanuel Macron’s holiday pad, but she shouldn’t expect a Brexit concession for dessert…. there is little sign that the U.K.’s latest round of grand tour diplomacy is shifting EU red lines.
“The only negotiation channel is through the EU Commission’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier,” said a senior European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity…
Barnier is also showing no sign of softening in the summer heat.
In an op-ed published Thursday and titled “An ambitious partnership with the U.K. after Brexit,” Barnier torpedoed May’s proposal on market access in the nicest way possible. It was the latest in the EU negotiator’s continuing effort to make clear that the core of May’s proposal is unacceptable to the EU27 without fully rejecting her white paper so completely as to potentially derail the talks or even imperil May’s government…
But most of Barnier’s piece was focused on the urgent need for a solution for Ireland and on why core aspects of May’s Chequers plan are unacceptable to Brussels because they threaten the integrity of the EU single market…
In Berlin too, there was no sign Thursday of a shift in mood music. Germany’s outgoing top Brexit official, Peter Ptassek, tweeted out a link to Barnier’s op-ed, stressing what has been the EU’s top priority in the Brexit negotiations since the start of the year: the need for a safeguard, or backstop, to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
And officials expressed surprise that anyone on the U.K. side might have detected a shift in Angela Merkel’s tone on Brexit after her July 5 meeting with May in Berlin.
“There hasn’t been any change whatsoever,” a German foreign policy official insisted.
The Guardian also saw the Barnier article as a slap to the UK’s pig-headedness. From UK’s Brexit proposals threaten future of EU, says Barnier:
Michel Barnier has launched his own appeal for hearts and minds in Europe by warning that Theresa May’s Brexit proposals, put forward in the UK government’s recent white paper, pose a threat to the future of the European single market….
Barnier’s line is a familiar one in Whitehall, but the publication of his article is incendiary given the push in recent days by May and her cabinet to try and forge a new approach to the negotiations with the EU27 states.
I read this differently. Barnier told May before she launched her charm offensive that her time would be better spent on going back to the drawing board. As we wrote last last week:
On top of that, May plans to go over Barnier’s head to get him overruled. Barnier saw fit to clear his throat about that:
Anyone who wants to find a sliver of difference between my mandate and what the heads of government say they want are wasting their time, quite frankly.
Theresa May tried this stunt before (there have been so many Brexit twists and turns I can’t recall over what) and it didn’t work then.
More important, May’s efforts to go mano a mano is hugely disrespectful to the EU. It isn’t simply that she’s trying to undermine Barnier. It is that the EU set forth at the end of April 2017 the guidelines for how the negotitions would be conducted, including the sequencing of issues. The UK grumbled a bit but did not attempt to renegotiate the EU deciding the shape of the table. That exercise included the EU27 giving Barnier his negotiating parameters.
The only way to change that would be at an EU Council meeting. May acting as if she can get waivers by talking nice to a few head of state again demonstrates how the UK acts as if everything should be done to accommodate its whims and foibles.
Barnier showed some pique in his earlier remark. It seems plausible that this article was meant as a passive aggressive slap at May, and that he’d have the full support of the people who count in the EU27. But the bizarre articles in the Financial Times, apparently based on Government whisperings, show that UK officials are so thick, they don’t even realize they are being dressed down.