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Crunch Brexit week in Brussels? EU journalists debate the UK’s looming departure
British prime minister Theresa May’s speech to the EU summit this evening is being seen as yet another potential crunch moment.
EU president Donald Tusk has called on her to find a creative solution to tackling the current sticking point, the Irish border. The Irish backstop is a fallback set of arrangements for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU as an alternative to imposing a hard border with the Republic of Ireland – but the two sides are unable to agree on how long it would last and what form it would take.
Both sides would like to finalise an exit deal by mid-November, in order to allow time for voting in the UK and ratification by EU members.
Ahead of the possible breakthrough summit, EU communications consultancy Cambre Associates invited key correspondents from both sides of the channel to the Brussels Press Club last week. Its chairman and newly-appointed British Chamber president Tom Parker moderated.
Tom Parker: When reporting on Brexit, is there a particular angle or issue that you follow?
Gabriel Grésillon (Brussels reporter, Les Echos, Fr) “In the beginning there was a big interest politically. At last French businesses are starting to think about how Brexit will impact their sector.”
Alex Pigman (Brussels, AFP agency) “The dirty little secret since last December is that there hasn’t actually been any hard news on Brexit. Now that we are finally in the final quarter of the basketball game, it’s show time.”
Matthew Holehouse (UK/EU correspondent, MLex, UK) “We write about regulatory risk, competition decisions, financial services, energy, digital. The UK is part of a larger jurisdiction and by creating a new entity is going to take decisions for itself. We are following the decision process in the UK, but can’t disconnect from the intense party politics.”
Jennifer Rankin (Brussels journalist, The Guardian, UK) “We have to keep in mind the huge interest from non UK readers, so we explain details clearly enough, so that the knotty story of the Irish backstop is clear. On Brexit we want to focus on the process of negotiations and what they mean, and keep putting it in context. We’ve been in a reactive phase; what’s said or not said or not done in the UK, trying to make sense of all the noise about Brexit and report about what it means.”
Sarah Collins (Brussels correspondent, Evening Standard, London) “We concentrate pretty much on Brexit, I have to anticipate news and write about it before it happens.”
Tom Parker: Is there space for the detailed analysis which is critical for the outcome of the Brexit process? Is the tension between negotiating parties and the UK political background driving media attention?
GG “The French financial sector has seen Brexit as an opportunity since the beginning as there is hope that some that some banks and institutions will come to Paris; yet fear remains the dominant narrative. People are now thinking about the real consequences of Brexit on business. It’s frustrating for us in Brussels that we feel that the negotiations are inside London. It’s very chaotic, at least from the outside and nearly impossible to know what’s going to happen.”
MH “One of the paradoxes of Brexit is that we are told that the UK was quite instrumental in building and designing how the EU institutions work, and yet the country is finding it quite hard to do the same in its own country. There is a huge gulf between what politicians say and the stuff you read that the civil servants produce.”
JR “Our front page news is domestic politics, but we are paying more attention to Brussels than ever. My role is to cover the EU process, rather than the impact of Brexit on British business and citizens.”
SC “British politics and machinations within the Tory party have been dominating headlines, because little hard, political news has been coming out of Brussels. In terms of the business community, it’s very important because of our huge readership in the city of London.”
AP “Here in Brussels we have to repeat ourselves – explain the basics like the backstop - new readers may have not seen Season 2 through to 7 and are coming in at season 8.
One fundamental difference to the Greek debt crisis, is that the level of trust between the UK-EU negotiators is pretty much absolute. Despite all the histrionics at the political level, at a negotiating level, these are people who have known each other all their professional careers. So it’s tougher to get the little scoops. There’s not a lot of smoke coming out of the negotiations or friction because people like each other and are trying to do their best on best sides.”
TP How do you prepare for an important milestone, like the council meeting or the House of Commons vote in November?
JR “With these big events, you might find that the agreement has already been made behind closed doors. But it’s still very unpredictable and the people I talk to on both sides don’t share the confidence that I hear in the broad brush headlines on Brexit. They still say there’s a lot to be done on outstanding issues such as the Irish backstop, so in my preparations it’s trying to keep track of what people are saying every day and how its changing day by day, hour by hour, and then hopefully when you get to the big day you have a sense of how it’s going to unfold.”
AP “You can be over briefed, at some point your head begins to explode. As a news agency we are looking for hard news and are waiting for game day; the statement, the deal, and as quickly as possible get the snap analysis.”
SC “I work week by week. The summit in itself is always an anticlimax; we have been so briefed, there’s not a lot of debate at the summit itself and rarely throws up any surprises. In terms of the November vote, I’m keeping council. But it’s always exciting on a week like this, when nobody is talking, you know definitely something is happening.”
MH “I think the [November vote] will fly through the House of Commons. I think the ERG, this caucus of hardline EU sceptics are divided, it’s the biggest group of prima donnas. Rhetoric will absolutely prevail in the run up to the vote, the Conservative Party will say we’ve won, we’ve made some compromises, but we’ve got out of the EU and we haven’t scorched the economy completely. The Labour Party will be very conscious of appearing anti-Brexit or trying to sabotage Brexit in some way; the future partnership will be sufficiently vague that they can rally around it. This deal is going to be jam-packed with impenetrable legalese that most people won’t bother poring over it.”
JR “I do think both sides are heading towards a deal because alternatives are too awful and it would be very difficult for Labour to vote against whatever deal Theresa May comes back with; they’ll be worried about alienating their own supporters who voted for Brexit.”
Questions from public:
Is the EU committed to seeing Brits getting forward movement rights back?
JR “The question of onward movement for British nationals has dropped off the agenda in EU and the UK has stopped pushing for it. I can’t see it being in the withdrawal agreement but further down the line, there may be pressure on this issue.”
SC “There is a discrepancy between Northern Ireland citizens who do have an Irish passport and those that don’t and I think once that becomes a reality, this issue will be back on the agenda and so it should because of the Good Friday agreement.”
Do you have any idea of where these different political views are leading to in a future arrangement of the UK and EU?
MH “I think in the long run it may look like Chequers, but will take 10-15 years to get there. It would not be good for the single market to have a divergent regime 20km across the channel. I think the EU has historically been very good at exporting its norms and trying to get its EU partners to accept these norms in exchange for access to the market; surely this has to be the road that it will go down. I don’t think the EU will enjoy a Canada-regulated UK on its doorstep. I think the Chequers agreement is probably May saying this is the EU thinking on how it will go in the long run.”
How does the panel reflect on criticism of Jean-Claude Juncker and press freedom and what is the role of the press in the Brexit process? Does the media have a role to educate?
SC “I don’t think press freedom has been impinged upon. Juncker can get annoyed by 40 years of bad EU press, but they have bigger fish to fry.”
JR “I don’t think Juncker was making an attack on press freedom, he was expressing his frustration, particularly concerning articles about his father. I don’t think there is a challenge to press freedom in Brussels. We enjoy freedoms here that many journalists around the world don’t have.”
AP “It’s important to realise that the British media is a foreign entity to Europeans, even among the press pack. There’s a level of not understanding the logic and the UK press is very, very competitive. A lot of EU media is semi state organisations with a public commitment. I think we are fulfilling our role, but that we don’t always have the audience for it. I’ve sometimes done my fact box explaining all the issues, but no one clicked on it.”
GG “We are subsidised so it does change how we see our job. I see it as explaining to readers, so I write a lot of boring stuff, explaining the backstop and the Good Friday agreement and I have the same feeling that when I write a piece that is less boring, there’s going to be more clicks on it.”
Can you see anything coming up that will test EU unity?
GG “Most of us are surprised by the unity. Brexit has been a moment when everyone realises that there are concessions to make, but that we all have to make concessions or the whole thing blows up.”
AP “When the vote happened, it was a moment of unity in the EU and it wasn’t even something rational, but deeper than that. That was a huge shock to Brexiteers that the EU did not crumble.”
JR “The member states have been surprised by the level of unity and even some of the Barnier sceptics have been won over. The Brexit process has helped the EU realise what it’s about. But that could change when we get on to the future relationship, possibly when getting into the real nitty gritty like a future trade deal and customs union, if that’s on the table.”
SC “The British press cannot question the briefing from No 10, the European press cannot question the existential fact of the EU, whereas in the UK, that’s part of the course and in the Irish press it's something in between.”
Photo: Gianmaria Sisti