‘The damage is done’: Disbelief in Europe at another lost Brexit week

Daniel Boffey Brussels


It was the week in which the EU’s governments had hoped that British common sense might seal the deal, putting a painful first chapter of the Brexit psychodrama to bed.

By Wednesday the French daily Le Monde had concluded that the hoarseness of the prime minister’s throat “symbolised the state of a supposedly pragmatic country left voiceless by its incapacity to accept compromise with its neighbours”.

Related: Revealed: EU war-gaming for fall of May’s government

For all the forlorn hopes that things might be different this time, leaders across Europe and senior EU officials in their offices in Brussels, watched on with a sinking heart as Theresa May’s deal was rejected again on Tuesday evening, this time by 149 votes, the fourth largest defeat for a sitting government. The Commons subsequently voted to delay Brexit by at least three months.

Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, who has described himself as Britain’s best friend among the 27 EU heads of state and government, was left asking reporters: “What’s the point of whining on for months on end while we have been going around in circles for two years?”

There had never been great optimism among the British officials close to the negotiations that things would slot into place, given the EU’s refusal to make changes to the withdrawal agreement, and the over-optimistic goals set by the prime minister in the Commons for the latest talks. But there had been a plan.

With just 24 hours to go before the ill-fated vote on May’s deal, the prime minister would make a dramatic last-gasp dash to sit down with Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president in Strasbourg.

The discussions in Juncker’s office on the sixth floor of the Winston Churchill building of the European parliament would last for no more than 30 minutes. May was to arrive at 9pm. A room for a press conference had been booked until 10pm. The prime minister would then fly back to RAF Northolt having unveiled the assurances on the backstop that she hoped would convince MPs to back her deal.

In reality, the meeting, peppered with phone calls between Juncker and a concerned taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, back in Dublin, lasted almost three hours, as May tried to “squeeze the pips” and get the most she could from the situation, sources said.

May and Juncker only got to finally sit down in front of reporters shortly before midnight. Yet, even then, few in the room had any doubt that the Democratic Unionist party, and the “Star chamber” of Brexiter lawyers assembled by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s guerrilla-style European Research Group of MPs would summarily reject it as insufficient.

After the deal was voted down, the EU’s deputy chief negotiator, Sabine Weyand, who drafted the Strasbourg compromise papers, told the EU’s ambassadors that the commission had done everything it could within the political and legal realities it faced. Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice issued had changed almost throughout, she said. The assurances given to the attorney-general that the EU could not maliciously trap the UK in the customs union envisaged in the Northern Ireland backstop did their job. That showed how substantial the offer had been from the EU.

And yet still it was not enough. “We’re well beyond frustration at this stage”, said one EU official involved in the negotiations.

Using social media to vent her frustration, Weyand “liked” a tweet that claimed the vote in the Commons showed a “serious failure of a two-party system”.

“With no opposition, DUP and Rees-Mogg group are holding the country to ransom,” the tweet claimed. “They are fringe groups and yet. It’s bizarre and quite scary.”

Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian MEP on the parliament’s Brexit steering committee, briefed by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, put it succinctly after the vote. “We know how May functions, that she is just running down the clock”, he said. “We know there are a number of lunatics in the House of Commons – but what can we do.”

In the Berthom bar in Strasbourg, a favourite of MEPs and their aides, the beer flowed, along with expressions of irritation. “This is the most boring crisis ever,” said one Dutch Eurocrat. “It just goes on and on and on, about the same thing. And, you know, the British reputation will be ruined for decades – like France in the 1980s. That will be the UK. You can see it happening already.”

Mockery of the British plight has increasingly become a staple of European media on the occasion that they choose to alight on a story that has many readers on the continent reaching for the sports pages or the remote control.

On Friday morning the Francophone NRJ Belgique radio station devoted its comedy slot to British exceptionalism. “They drive on the left. The only fly the British flag outside Buckingham Palace. Qu’est-ce que c’est avec ces Britanniques (what is it with these British)?”, the comedian asked.

Claude Moraes, a highly respected Labour MEP first elected in 1999, who chairs the European parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, said he was approached on a daily basis by those offering their “pity and sympathy”. “People notice my nationality now,” Moraes said. “There is no doubt that there has been huge reputational damage. They watch the House of Commons and all these votes. There was a respect there – the mother of all parliaments – but the way MPs have conducted themselves, the level of knowledge of MPs, has been an eye-opener.”

“The damage for the UK of all this is done,” added Lamberts, a self-confessed anglophile. “It is huge. I wish all those who talk about global Britain well. They will be mincemeat at the hands of the likes of Donald Trump and will be snubbed by those who used to be their colonies. How long this damage will last, I don’t know. I suppose it depends on whether the lunatics stay in charge.”