What does the EU want? Imagine for a moment that the EU had refused last week to engage in further Brexit talks with the UK. There would now be less of a prospect, if any, of the two parties agreeing to a revised deal.
It follows that a new wind would have been blown into the sails of Yvette Cooper’s amendment to give the Commons control of the negotiation (or into those of a similar amendment proposed by someone else). She and her supporters would have been able to argue that the talks were definitely getting nowhere, and that the legislature should take them over from the executive. Her amendment was beaten by only 23 votes late last month. In these circumstances, it might well have passed. Control of the negotiation would thus have been wrested from the Government.
The EU knows all this perfectly well. So why didn’t it move to deliver the coup de grace to the Prime Minister last week – rather than, instead, help both to prop her up and kick the can down the road?
A plausible answer is that the conventional wisdom is turning out to be wrong. It holds that the EU couldn’t care less who governs Britain, and is willing to press, in all circumstances, for the softest of Brexits or else for the whole project to fold. But were this so, it surely wouldn’t be acting as it is now. For all Donald Tusk’s antipathetic rhetoric, EU references to Gibraltar as a “colony” and Jean-Claude Juncker’s brandishing of an anti-British card from Ireland, the EU is effectively keeping Theresa May’s Government on life support – with the possibility in turn of a full recovery.
It has behaved in this way before. When the two sides of the negotiating table were gridlocked late in 2017, it conceded enough ground to allow the joint report to be signed.
Here is a possible explanation. Rather than help punt the negotiation into the Commons’ hands, the EU prefers to stick with the devil it knows. It doesn’t want a disorderly Brexit on its north-west frontier. It is busy enough as it is with a coming new Commission, difficult European Parliamentary elections, populist turmoil in France, a row between that country and Italy, worries about migration everywhere, and the grisly prospect of recession – which a No Deal Brexit would make worse. All this might help to explain why the EU’s arrangements for No Deal are less punitive than some expected.
At any rate, it has helped to craft a timetable which will deliver the Prime Minister an offer on the backstop. She will report “progress” on February 27. And the backstop plus a codicil, say, may then be offered to the EU in the wake of the next Council meeting on March 21.
Now you may well argue that this plan won’t work – that the Commons would reject anything short of the removal of the backstop. And you may well be right. But that doesn’t mean that the EU and the Government aren’t preparing to try precisely this. If – and we repeat if – the ploy succeeded, the way would be prepared for a short technical extension to allow time for a Withdrawal Bill, following a Commons vote on the deal, to pass Parliament. This type of extension with a clear aim and endpoint would be very different to a three month or nine month or two year one with neither.
As we say, we are not betting the ConservativeHome ranch on the EU aiming to prop up May at almost all costs, and making a concession on the backstop that is arguably meaningful – against the wishes of an unhappy Leo Varadkar and the Irish Government.
But what we have set out is a persuasive reading of current events. Obtaining an accurate one is made very hard by the limitations of British journalism, at least when it comes to covering Brussels rather than Westminster. Media outlets devote more resources to Westminster than Brussels. The culture that governs coverage of the former is more critical than that of the latter. Some of the Brussels correspondents are superb, but they are not well set up to know what Berlin is saying to the Commission, or Berlin to Paris, or what the latest Brexit take is (if any) in southern or Eastern Europe. This unevenness of reporting is a constant barrier to understanding.
And for all the relative unity of the EU during the negotiation,.different bits of it have different perspectives and interests: consider, for example, French and Irish perspectives on border checks. Which is why we ask again: what does the EU want?