Brexit is not on the agenda for Theresa May’s debut summit: the prime minister has no more intention of revealing her hand before divorce talks start than EU leaders do of breaking their pledge of “no negotiations before notification”.
But the 27 other heads of government gathering in Brussels for the two-day European council meeting will nonetheless be watching, and listening. The words – and policies – coming out of London have hardened the stance of many.
Most European governments are convinced May’s Conservative party conference speech earlier this month, in which she pledged to control immigration and regain full parliamentary and judicial sovereignty, was a statement of intent to take Britain out of the single market – while apparently still seeking the “best possible” trade deal.
“The problem is, they’re just not compatible,” said one EU diplomat. “Britain can’t have it both ways and we can’t rewrite the rules. It has to see that if it wants to opt out of fundamental obligations, it can’t opt into fundamental rights. No free movement, no EU rules, no EU budget payments means no free trade.”
Statements in recent weeks by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the French president, François Hollande, and the EU council chief, Donald Tusk – who chairs the summit and wants to avoid all discussion of Brexit beyond a brief progress report by May over dessert on Thursday night – have been very clear.
No EU leader, in the member states or the institutions, has shown the least willingness to enter into a debate that would, in effect, risk breaking open the EU’s inseparable four freedoms – free movement of goods, people, capital and services – for the sake of a country that has voted to leave.
Xavier Bettel, the Luxembourg prime minister, neatly summed up European frustrations with Britain’s apparently determined attempt to both have its cake and eat it last week, observing: “Before they were in, and they had many opt-outs. Now they want to be out, with many opt-ins.”
There is a strong feeling in EU capitals that Britain is being unrealistic – even deluded – in its expectations, that it cannot possibly walk away with a better deal than it was offered to stay, and must in any event end up with a worse one than it (and everyone else) currently enjoys.
One reason for this is straightforward concern about other Eurosceptic populists knocking at the gate: in the Netherlands, France and Germany, the likes of Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry will make further inroads in elections during 2017.
Mark Rutte, prime minister of the traditionally Anglophile Netherlands, told his parliament this week he was “training like a boxer” for Brexit negotiations. Kees Verhoeven, a member of the same assembly’s European affairs committee, said there was simply “no political space to make it easy” for the UK, and that “the only thing that matters is, don’t make the UK an argument for populists to leave”.
Even deeper than that, single-market solidarity, upholding the four freedoms, maintaining the integrity of the bloc’s institutions have, of necessity, hardened into top priorities. Whatever Brexiters may say about UK sales of Mercedes and prosecco, they will take second place.
For many on the continent, Brexit is a political project – so the EU will respond politically. Two of Germany’s largest trade associations this month again backed this stance, even if it comes at a short-term cost, saying allowing any British opt-out from the four freedoms would mark the beginning of the end of the single market.
EU diplomats speak, too, of genuine shock at proposals by the home secretary, Amber Rudd, to oblige British firms to disclose how many foreign workers they employ. Even if it was swiftly withdrawn, the tenor of the suggestion, with its echoes of far-right doctrines of national preference, was greeted with astonishment.
In Paris, where Hollande talked of the need for the UK to face “a threat, a risk … a price” and ministers are agreed the City must lose its passporting rights and much of its euro trade, officials say any attempt to force French nationals to apply for visas or work permits, as Rudd has since suggested, would be seen as a “hostile act”.
Bullish statements on fast-track bilateral trade deals by the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, have not gone down well on the continent either, where some feel Britain is actively working against the EU – currently struggling to seal its Canada trade deal – before it has even left the bloc.
So May’s views on the topics that are up for discussion in Brussels – trade, immigration, security, defence, Russia – will be listened to attentively. Will she be conciliatory, or inflammatory? Table-thumping, or modest?
This may be her first summit and Brexit may not be up for discussion, but how the British prime minister comes across this week could prove critical to how smoothly the negotiations, which will start before the end of March, proceed.