Tick follows tock follows tick: Waiting for May in March

We find ourselves at the end of the phoney war. Probably.

With only a few weeks left until Theresa May’s self-imposed deadline for Article 50 notification, the most striking thing as one looks around is the almost-complete absence of interest in the issue.

In the UK, this might partly be understood by the wait on the House of Lords to complete their approval of the legislation. However, despite the government’s expectation that this will result in amendments and thus ‘ping pong’ with the House of Commons, which in turn might mean missing the end-March deadline, there is scarcely a whisper of discontent.

In the EU27, there is little more than continuing preparation for the coming negotiations, as the reports pile up (most recently from the French Senate) and the checklists grow.

Indeed, the most notable intervention of recent weeks has come from Tomas Prouza, Czech State Secretary for European Affairs. He spoke at an event I attended last week in Prague, with a speech that was mainly noted in the UK as accusing May of lying about the impact of EU immigrants on the UK. Sitting in the audience, that wasn’t my take-home.

Instead, Prouza seemed more interested in underlining the point that May has still to set out anything like a comprehensive negotiating position for Article 50: in his words, the White Paper did nothing except state that “Theresa May’s speech means Theresa May’s speech” and a broad hope that everyone could get along well in future.

In short, Prouza was making the basic observation that the Czech government – and the EU27 – have paid (and do pay) attention to what is happening in the UK and are factoring it into their calculations: there is no hermetic sealing off of British political debate from the outside world. That such a thing has to be said betrays both the state of the UK’s discussion on Article 50 and the self-image of the country.

The biggest unknown in the process right now is how much May has adequately laid the groundwork for starting negotiations. That includes knowing what the EU7 are likely to ask for and who she can work on to help her achieve her objectives. As the Prague conference noted several times, the UK has traditionally been very good at divide-and-rule in the EU, with a series of partnerships on different issues with other member states. At the same time, Prouza did note that in all the like-minded groups, much work has done into sorting out who will pick up the UK’s role, so much disinvestment in relations with the British has already taken place. And in a context of departure on uncertain terms, what can the UK offer that will be of interest to others?

More crucially, the British government has still to articulate what it wants. Even the concession that it will not seek to break the four freedoms seems to have sunk without much trace, largely because the EU27 have been so adamant that this was never going to be an option: the UK is simply falling into line, not giving anything up. Beyond that, the government is still parroting the line about finding innovative solutions to membership of the customs union, without any idea of how that might work.

All of this does not bode well.

The end-March deadline still looks questionable, both on the British side and for the EU27, who are still deep in a pile of other problems that require their attention. Even if May has decided that notification in or around the EU’s 60th anniversary celebrations, or even participation at that event in Rome, is a bad way to kick things off, March remains a terrible time, between the resumption of the annual refugee traffic across the Mediterranean, an uneasy Russia and a US administration that looks ever-less in control, not to mention the persistent need for Eurozone reform, and a big bunch of important national elections.

The mistake not to be made, however, is to assume that this helps the UK get a better deal. Further delay on an already-much-delayed notification will win no friends and gain no advantage. Likewise, the UK needs to recognise that the time that has already gone has been used by the EU27 to settle many points of difference among them, leaving the latter better-placed to shape both the process and the content of negotiations.

As such, the view from Prague is the same as it is from other capitals: don’t think you can mess us about. as Prouza commented, the Czechs have many links with the UK, but they also have them with other EU states and right now, ‘club membership has more benefits.’