While the fourth round of Brexit talks is ongoing in Brussels, Britain has launched a diplomatic “charm offensive” across several EU countries.
While the move is officially aimed at explaining Theresa’s May speech in Florence last week — and, in Liam Fox’s case, promoting trade — diplomats in Brussels and in several EU capitals expressed concern that the Brits are seeking to bypass the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and Brussels, and win backing from nation states. European leaders will decide at October’s European Council summit whether Brexit talks can progress to the next phase.
London has sent Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox on missions to European capitals this week.
On Monday, Johnson embarked on a “two-day, three-country European trip,” focusing on “security” during which he will visit Prague, Bucharest and Bratislava, according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Meanwhile, Davis met with Belgium’s foreign affairs minister Monday and traveled to The Hague Tuesday to meet the Dutch foreign minister. Fox met the Dutch minister for foreign trade and business organizations on Monday and headed to Brussels Tuesday to attend a meeting with European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström.
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Davis is planning to be in continental Europe all week, according to Brexit department officials, although the U.K. government is yet to confirm his plans between Tuesday’s meeting in the Netherlands and Thursday’s close of talks in Brussels.
The meetings coincide with May’s working lunch with European Council President Donald Tusk in Downing Street Tuesday. The meeting was arranged after an invitation from London.
EU diplomats said that the trips appear to be an attempt to start talking bilaterally about the U.K.’s future relationship with the bloc, and one warned that it looked like an attempt to divide the EU27. Barnier said Monday that despite the U.K.’s new position — as set out in the Florence speech — on a post-Brexit transition period, the U.K.’s financial obligations to the EU and citizens rights, the talks would not progress to the next phase until sufficient progress had been made on withdrawal issues.
“The Brits are going on a charm offensive,” said one senior EU diplomat. “From what I know it is not that effective; everybody is holding the line and I think it helps extremely to strengthen the EU27. I never thought the Brits were so charming but we will see … There is only one negotiator and this is Barnier,” the diplomat added.
“Those efforts are an attempt to try and soften the position of some EU countries before Thursday’s dinner with May,” said a second EU diplomat — referring to an EU Digital Summit in Tallinn later this week.
“No matter what they attempt, we are not moving bilaterally, nobody broke ranks so far,” said a member country diplomat. “We want movement on the bill and overall on phase one before we start talking about trade, security and any other aspect of the future relationships.”
British officials, however, reject any attempt to characterize the diplomatic visits as part of an attempt to bypass Barnier and the Commission and point out that the U.K. has shown a similar commitment to engaging with EU institutions. Davis, for example, met the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt in a low-key meeting in Brussels Monday.
“The negotiations happen in Brussels,” said one U.K. official. “This is about our bilateral relationships and ensuring our allies hear what we have to say direct.”
Johnson, speaking to Romanian news agency Agerpress, echoed that sentiment.
“I’m here because we wanted to come straight from the PM’s Florence speech to explain what she wants to do. After Brexit, we want to protect the rights of the Romanians in the U.K., to secure those rights and to make sure they are guaranteed by the U.K. courts. But those courts will also be able to have regard to the jurisprudence, to the law of the European Court of Justice.”
He added the U.K. would be “crazy” to do anything that pushed Romanian citizens in the U.K. to return home.