Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
The mood in Brussels is currently akin to the build-up to a big rugby match. The submission of Article 50 sent the teams out onto the pitch, and now the two sides are taking turns to perform the Haka, that pre-match ritual dance designed to intimidate opponents – while the other stands silently, projecting strength and resoluteness.
On the sidelines, pundits are predicting how the game will play out and commenting on tactics. Was Theresa May right to omit Gibraltar when she picked her line up for the Article 50 letter? Has the European Council gone for a too attack-minded formation in demanding that the UK agrees to settle its outstanding bills before wider talks begin?
All this bluster is meat and drink for the media in the absence of any real developments, but do not read too much into it. Behind the scenes at the EU, I am encouraged by the much more pragmatic stance now being adopted by those who really matter.
Take Donald Tusk. His statement last week responding to Article 50 struck the right tone. It was measured, matter of fact and avoided confrontation. The line “we will approach these talks constructively and strive to find an agreement. In the future, we hope to have the United Kingdom as a close partner” could just as easily have been written in London.
Michel Barnier also set the appropriate mood music in his first major speech since being appointed. Addressing the Committee of the Regions in Brussels, he spoke of a new partnership between the EU and the UK with a free trade agreement at its heart. I do not share the concerns that some have expressed about Barnier. I dealt with him frequently in his past role as EU Commissioner for financial services and found him hands-on, willing to listen and methodical.
Of course there are exceptions. This week, MEPs voted on a resolution suggesting lines that Barnier should take in negotiations with the UK. It was prepared by Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, and a handful of consultees in great secrecy, with the intention of making it unamendable when it was presented to Parliament.
The end result ignores much of the good work done by the parliament’s specialist committees and approved by politicians of all parties, but it is not so much the content that raised concerns – after all, the resolution is only advisory – as the way it was put together.
The vast majority of MEPs were frozen out of the consultation. Yet, in an irony that I am sure is lost on Verhofstadt, the resolution states that “negotiations between the EU and the UK must be conducted in good faith and full transparency.”
It is important to bear in mind that while some MEPs will continue to make a lot of noise over the coming months, they will not be on the pitch when – returning to my rugby analogy – the referee blows his whistle and talks get underway in May. MEPs will mostly remain on the bench observing the negotiations, until they are called at the end to vote on the final agreement. Our government is well aware of this and the regular visits of British ministers to the European Parliament to meet MEPs from across the political spectrum have been well-received.
It is going to be a tough match, but hopefully a fair one. I have total confidence that in Theresa May we have a first-class captain, who having earned a number of caps in negotiations in Brussels from her time as Home Secretary, is a well respected by the EU team. My perfect result? A high scoring draw – with all the players meeting for a drink in the bar afterwards.