What can Brussels do to save Theresa May? EU leaders are confronted with the dilemma earlier than expected on Tuesday after the prime minister took the eleventh hour decision to postpone a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal.
Instead of spending Tuesday in the House of Commons, Mrs May is on a desperate diplomatic tour of European capitals to secure concessions to take back to her restive legislature.
Mrs May’s tour starts in The Hague for breakfast with Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, followed by lunch with Angela Merkel in Berlin, then Jean-Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier, and Donald Tusk in Brussels. EU27 leaders gather on Thursday and Friday for a summit that has been hijacked by Brexit.
Brussels is ready to help the Brexit rescue mission but with clear limits on how far it can go. Mr Tusk and the European Commission on Monday repeated that the UK’s 585-page Brexit withdrawal treaty will not be reopened. The substance of the loathed “backstop” plans for preventing a hard border in Ireland — the target of Mrs May’s diplomatic offensive — is not open for discussion.
The options are limited but there is space for creativity. The FT reports the EU is willing to come up with a short “declaration” accompanying the exit treaty designed to reassure MPs about the backstop arrangement (or “the trap” as some Eurosceptics call it).
The text would spell out the EU’s hope that the backstop will never need to be used and would not be permanent even if it did. Additional sweeteners could include a target date for a new free trade deal and clarification that the backstop arrangements may be replaced in “whole or in part” if a better solution can be found.
But Mrs May wants more. Officials say the PM will on Tuesday push for the declaration to carry real legal weight rather than serve as a mere political clarification of already agreed texts. Brussels is resisting for now.
Mrs May’s predicament is unenviable but the EU has been in tight spots before. It is apt that Mrs May’s first stop is Mr Rutte — a man who knows exactly what it’s like to try to extract last-ditch concessions from the EU on a closed treaty text.
In 2016, the Dutch voted in a referendum against an EU trade and cooperation deal with Ukraine, leaving Mr Rutte needing changes to get it past his parliament. Brussels concocted a solution: a legally binding decision of the European Council that interpreted the Ukraine treaty in a way that placated Dutch voters.
It was a diplomatic contortion — and a precedent — that gave binding assurances to a member state without reworking or contradicting a painstakingly negotiated international treaty.
But Mr Rutte had his parliament on board — a crucial difference from Mrs May’s situation. There are already fears the Brits — perhaps under a new prime minister — will come back to Brussels for even more. At some point the Dutch solution to treaty ratification crises may come in handy.
Chart du jour: Anti-Semitism in Europe
“Anti-Semitism appears to be so deep-rooted in society that regular harassment has become part of Jews’ everyday life” — stark findings from a comprehensive new survey by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency. The chart above shows almost 90 per cent of European Jews think anti-Semitism has increased since 2013. Some 40 per cent of European Jews have considered leaving their home countries over the past five years because of concerns about anti-Semitism. (FT)
It’s not a U-turn
In the end, Emmanuel Macron’s response to the biggest crisis facing his presidency was a 13-minute address to the nation. Confronted with the outpouring of anger by the gilets jaunes, the French president announced immediate steps — including a €100 monthly hike to the minimum wage and tax-free overtime — while also defending his reforms as the best solution to deep rooted grievances.
In a speech titled “turning anger into opportunity”, Mr Macron admitted to mistakes, while denouncing protesters who had turned to violence. But he refused to carry out a U-turn to reintroduce a scrapped wealth tax. Le Figaro calls it Mr Macron’s “mea culpa” moment, while Libération’s front-page says Jupiter has taken some baby steps — nothing more — to confront the anger of the gilets jaunes.
Signed and sealed
Over 150 countries signed off on a UN migration pact in Marrakesh that has caused deep political angst among the continent’s governments. (Politico). Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, who decided to pull out of the pact while holding the rotating EU presidency, has been accused of surrendering “to alt-right fake news & propaganda” by former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt:
Italian stand-off thaws
Handelsblatt reports Rome and Brussels are ready to come up with a compromise over Italy’s populist government’s budget plan ahead of a leaders summit this week.
Europe’s new autocrats
The Washington Post reports on a 21st century style of autocratic democracy emerging in Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic: “Countries that once represented the triumph of liberty and freedom are now using democratic structures as tools of oppression”. It’s well worth your time.
Harvard university professor Joseph Nye on why fake news is here to stay in modern democracy. (Project Syndicate)
A church in The Hague has been running a non-stop service for the last six weeks to protect migrants in the church from possible deportation. (New York Times)
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