February 16, 2018
Theresa May heads to Berlin today to talk shop with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. There’s no agenda for the talks, although painful election results and recalcitrant parliamentary allies might be off-limits. More likely is that the two will discuss Brexit and the status of negotiations.
Theresa May heads to Berlin to try and bypass Michel Barnier, but will it work?
Part of the reason the PM is in Berlin is the Government’s strategy of trying to go around the EU Commission and deal directly with European leaders. Relations have soured with the Commission and its lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, and there are signs that even EU members are not all that pleased with how the negotiations are going (see below).
Playing the security card
After her brief trip to Berlin, May is set to deliver the second “Road to Brexit” speech tomorrow at the Munich Security Conference, dwelling, unsurprisingly, on security issues. Boris Johnson kicked the series off with a rather underwhelming effort on Wednesday, which failed to offer much at all that was new, but it seems May won’t repeat that mistake.
Angela Merkel’s spokesman has already warned that Europe expects concrete measures from Britain. As Front Bench discussed last week, all the fudging and contradictory statements from British ministers is not making negotiations incredibly difficult. Perhaps as a concession to these demands, May is reportedly set to announce that Britain will remain in Europol and the European Arrest Warrant scheme as part of a “deep and special security partnership”.
A meaningful concession?
If true, this is a substantial announcement and significant sign of goodwill from the UK; security is by far Britain’s biggest strength in dealing with the EU. However, as my colleague Jack Maidment explains in this week’s edition of Chopper’s Brexit Podcast, that doesn’t make it an easy card to play. Neither Britain nor the EU wish to become less safe in future, and so it’s hard to see how Britain could seriously threaten not to cooperate with Europe on this front.
Moreover, this is unlikely to go down well with hardline Brexiteers. Although May has said Britain will not be subject to EU laws after Brexit, its not immediately clear whether that is compatible with remaining in Europol or the arrest warrant scheme. Jacob Rees-Mogg has already expressed scepticism about Britain remaining in such schemes, and this could become another unexpected flashpoint within the Tory party.
Don’t do a Davos
One big risk for the PM is that, finding herself on familiar turf from her Home Office days, she reverts to domestic mode. In Davos – where May offered a narrow speech on tech firms and terrorism which failed to mention Brexit – she was totally shown up by the star power of Donald Trump and the grandiose European visions of the Merkel-Emmanuel Macron double act.
It’s fair to point out that May will be in Munich for the world’s leading security conference, and so this time it will completely appropriate to stick to security. This speech is also only a warm up for a proper landmark Brexit speech later this month, and its expected to be closer to Boris's on Wednesday (little new, a little underwhelming) than to her Lancaster House speech in January 2017.
Nevertheless, if May does do Davos and ends up looking like a Home Secretary on tour it won’t do Britain’s positions any good. If Britain wants a good relationship with the EU it needs to offer some certainty and a clear direction of travel. Failure to do that tomorrow will only pile further pressure on Theresa May for her next speech.
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