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What a difference a year makes — EU now sees May as its best bet

What a difference a year makes —  EU now sees May as its best bet

BRUSSELS: What a difference a year makes.

A year ago, British Prime Minister Theresa May was pictured standing alone at an EU summit, nervously playing with her sleeve as other leaders embraced and chatted around her — an image that summed up her isolation after her country voted for Brexit.

On Thursday, with the leaders of the other 27 states poised to agree to move Brexit talks forward to the decisive phase of discussing future ties, the 61-year-old was greeted with a warm show of support.

She needs it: the second phase of talks is likely to be even more difficult than the first and could widen divisions in her government, her party and the country over what Britain should become after Brexit.

May also faces an emboldened parliament at home. Rebels in her Conservative Party joined forces with opposition lawmakers on Wednesday to vote against the government on her Brexit blueprint — something they may try to repeat next week when May plans to write Britain’s departure date into law.




But the change in atmosphere in Brussels improves the chances of a friendlier divorce, reducing the possibility of Britain crashing out without a deal.

It may be a change born of necessity. A weakened May could be forced from office and the EU does not want to see a new, possibly hardline negotiator across the table half way through the talks.

“She is the best we’ve got. She’s all we got,” said a senior EU official, comparing her positively with her Brexit minister, David Davis, whose comment that the initial deal was a statement of intent rather than a legal pact annoyed many in the bloc.

For many Conservatives too, Theresa May is seen as the leading contender for securing Britain’s exit in March 2019.

“I think the prime minister is certainly far and away best placed to do that,” said British lawmaker and Brexit supporter David Jones, who was moved from his position as a Brexit minister earlier this year.

“She’s done very well in connection with this first stage of the agreement against the odds ... What she has actually achieved is acceptance on the part of the European Union that not only are we leaving but we can leave without causing a problem to them internally.”

Accident-prone

Theresa May was appointed prime minister shortly after Britain voted 18 months ago to leave the EU and she is committed to honouring that decision and unravelling four decades of EU membership.

But the path has not been smooth.

After losing her party’s majority at a June election, May has been almost unnaturally accident-prone.

An attempt to reassert her authority collapsed in a coughing fit during a speech at a Conservative party conference in October. Last week, a choreographed attempt to seal the deal to move on to the second phase of talks with the EU fell apart after her Northern Irish allies refused to sign off on it.

That was when European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hailed May as “a tough negotiator”, one who “is defending the point of view of Britain with all the energy we know she has”.

The embarrassing defeat in parliament on Wednesday underlined her weakness in relying on the support of a small Northern Irish party to pass legislation.

But after two failed attempts from within her party to oust her, May has proved many detractors wrong, pushing on with Brexit, which has sapped the government’s ability to pursue other policies and will define her time in power.

So for now, she is carrying her divided party with her. But the agreement to move to phase two, which some Conservatives described as a compromise, has shown some fraying at the edges of the coalition.

The key is for her to keep her ministers on board.

“It’s a fudge to get to the next stage ... but `Leave’ cabinet members have been reassured they will get the Brexit they want,” said a senior Conservative source.

That may mean keeping the possibility open of Britain moving away from EU regulations after it leaves, which could worry EU officials.

“The British people will be in control,” environment minister Michael Gove said last week. “If the British people dislike the arrangement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.”

Published in Dawn, December 15th, 2017

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