A couple of points on issue connection at this week’s European Council. The EU has other things to deal with; the UK might usefully take note of these.

[This piece was originally written in the format of a Twitter thread and has been minorly edited and corrected.] 

Brexit is on the agenda, but right down the list (literally), as the European Union has plenty of other stuff to deal with.

That other stuff is proving problematic (migration crisis...), and pressingly so, therefore expect it to take up much of the bandwidth Thursday and Friday.

EU & Brexit

A quick reminder of the way the EU27 handle the Brexit issues: i.e. at arm’s length. (when people complain ‘The EU isn’t talking much about it.’)

The European Council meetings now only discuss the Article 50 process and Brexit at two points:

  • informally, when the UK is present (e.g. at dinner)

  • and in formal session, when the UK is absent (after the main European Council)

So, the European Council is not really the place for moving things along, but rather for confirming progress has been made beforehand.

The key stepping-stone here is the General Affairs Council, comprising foreign ministers, who also run the same approach as the European Council.

There was actually one this week.

The General Affairs Council provides the preliminary text for the European Council, so what you heard from it this week will be mirrored on Friday.

Likewise the General Affairs Council draws on previous discussions at more technical level between the EU27 and the EU Commission’s Task Force on Article 50 Negotiations that have been taking place over past the weeks.

The key point to take from this is that last minute pushes are not going to have much impact on this process. Because the ‘EU’ isn’t homogeneous or centralised, proposals need to work way up (and down) levels.

Which is why we can already be pretty confident about what the outcome on Friday will be.

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This matters now, but it matters more for the autumn: the UK will have to get ideas into the system a long time before the October European Council if there is to be a reasonable chance for them to be incorporated.

tl;dr: Summer needs to see people in offices and meetings if the Article 50 timetable is to hold.

Where are we now?

You have a recipe that points to the UK being on the edge of things again.

That is not intrinsically a problem, since the European Union is already expecting nothing substantive from the UK until the White Paper is published, next month.

However, it is the last opportunity to press the flesh with EU leaders before the summer break, so probably it would be useful to indicate some strength of intent to unblock matters.

The dilemma for Theresa May is that the European Union now needs substance, which is precisely not what she can offer right now.

One option is to show good-will in helping with other issues (migration, security and defence, etc.) to highlight the continuing relationship.

Failing that, the priority is keeping the show on the road and not provoking any immediate rows. Which sounds like fun!🔷

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(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)

(Cover: Flickr/EU2017EE Estonian Presidency. European Council, Brussels - 15 December 2017.)