What Europe makes of May

Written by Robert Russell-Pavier on 25 July 2016 in Opinion

How is Theresa May and her new UK administration being viewed across the continent?

The view from Brussels

In many ways, the shock of Brexit is still not fully felt in Brussels; perhaps because of the slow summer pace that characterises EU institutions in July and August. The European Parliament is still remaining mostly silent apart from statements made by some MEPs or the EPP Group Chairman, Manfred Weber (Germany).

Overall, the mood in the EP is clear: Relief in Theresa May’s appointment as British PM; relief that the UK will indeed not be taking up its six month Presidency of the Council of the EU from July 2017; and an eagerness to get down to work on the Brexit process.

Given the fact that any agreement on Brexit between the UK and EU requires the EP’s consent by simple majority, the European Parliament will be a player. Expect heavy lobbying of the most influential MEPs by companies and other stakeholders from September.

The European Commission, meanwhile, is determined to show that the work continues, what with crucial competition cases opening up against Google and major legislative initiatives in full swing (like the Audio Visual and Media Services Directive for instance). Yet with regards to Brexit, the Commission is continuing to operate under strict embargo rules that forbid any senior or other official to say anything on or off the record on Brexit (though the latter is not religiously kept). It is becoming clear that Member States are assuming control, at least as far as the crucial political ground rules and base lines regarding the Brexit agreement are concerned. National Permanent Representations may indeed have the busiest summer meeting schedules in the Belgian capital!


May begins in Berlin

Contrary to commentary that Angela Merkel herself would not be susceptible to flattery, the German media and subsequently the German public were indeed flattered that Theresa May had chosen to make Berlin, rather than Paris, the first stop on her European city tour. The implicit British appreciation of Merkel’s view, uttered in front of the Bundestag, that Germany does have a historic responsibility to lead Europe out of its current crisis, will have reassured minds.

With the overwhelming narrative of two pragmatic vicars’ daughters getting on with the job they were chosen to do, there was an air of friendship, if not trust, between the two politicians. Little attention was paid to the actual content of their discussions; the focus much more on the relationship between the two women.

The Germans will be pleased with the image of their leader at the helm of the negotiations, and the initial, positive perception of the all-female pragmatism bodes well as the basis for the difficult exit negotiations to come.


Next up, Paris

And French President, Francois Hollande. Like Merkel, he too appeared to accept the fact that the UK will take the time it needs, even if his rhetoric was for May to trigger Article 50 as soon as possible. Where Hollande was clear came in relation to cherry-picking from the four pillars (movement, capital, goods and services), and that the UK had to accept the Single Market, and freedom of movement with this, or have another status. In some ways, this may be a negotiating stance aimed at ensuring that any deviation on migration is met with limiting the Single Market elsewhere.

Hollande was more forthcoming in confirming that border controls will remain in Calais and Dunkirk, and that UK nationals could stay in France providing this is reciprocated.

And finally, news from Dublin Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been doing the rounds to push for special recognition of the Irish/UK relationship and even went as far as floating the idea of a border poll on the basis that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Supported by all three major Irish political parties in the Republic, this suggestion provoked outrage in the Unionist community up north, while Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire insisted that the outcome of the referendum does not provide grounds for triggering a vote on a united Ireland. One to watch.

Meanwhile, Francois Hollande was in Dublin to discuss trade, terrorism and Brexit with Kenny. In what has been described as a “major boost” for Ireland in the discussions on Brexit, Hollande said Ireland was entitled to “a special place” in the Brexit negotiations. He also acknowledged the importance of the Good Friday Agreement and the land border with Northern Ireland.

So with May’s mini tour of Europe over and the UK Parliament departing for the summer recess, the British Government will begin in earnest the process of formulating its position, and in doing so, seeking business’ input.


Picture by: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images

About the author

Robert Russell-Pavier is an associate partner at Instinctif Partners.

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