British diplomats keep calm and carry on in EU

Brussels is wondering whether British diplomats have got the Brexit memo.

Officially, the U.K.’s status does not change until March 29, when — with or without a withdrawal treaty and the promised transition period — its privileges as a member of the bloc will come to an end.

But in weekly ambassadors’ meetings, at leaders’ summits and other events, London’s insistence on playing a full and influential role up until the last minute has left other EU countries surprised and bemused.

Some EU diplomats said their British counterparts, oddly, now often seem more engaged than they were prior to the Brexit referendum.

“We’re working very well with them, they actually seem sometimes more committed than before,” said an EU diplomat who stressed how on key issues like Iran and climate change the U.K has remained fully in line with the EU rather than following the approach of U.S. President Donald Trump.

EU diplomats have never detected a hint that the U.K.’s diplomatic corps in Brussels is fighting a proxy war for Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab’s negotiators.

The U.K. has remained similarly engaged on other foreign policy files, including at a meeting of EU diplomats in late September on the topic of Venezuela, which will be the subject of a discussion at next week’s meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers. The deputy secretary-general at the European External Action Service, Christian Leffler, briefed ambassadors on the agenda at the September meeting and the U.K. was quick to support a Spanish proposal to invite Eduardo Stein, the joint special representative for Venezuelan refugees and migrants in the region, to the lunchtime discussion, according to a diplomat who was in the room.

Or last week, when EU countries were discussing the issue of migration at an ambassadors’ meeting — going over the text that leaders will have to agree at a European Council summit next week — London intervened to note that the EU “should continue to think about taking specific measures,” said the diplomat. “It supported other countries like Denmark and Finland that the migration and internal security wording would need to be comprehensive and concrete.”

By the time the migration policies are implemented, the U.K. is expected to be long gone from the EU, but that clearly hasn’t stopped British diplomats from weighing in with their preferences.

All this might suggest an attempt to needle rival countries taking a hard line or to curry favor in the hopes of a softer deal. Not so, say EU diplomats, who have never detected a hint that the U.K.’s diplomatic corps in Brussels is fighting a proxy war for Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab’s negotiators. Rather, the civil servants appear to be adopting the British adage of keeping calm and carrying on.

Britain’s Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab arrives at Downing Street | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Asked why British diplomats are continuing in this vein, a British official pointed to a speech made by Theresa May in Munich in February. She argued that Brexit should not mean that the London and Brussels lose sight of their common aims. “As we leave the EU and forge a new path for ourselves in the world, the U.K. is just as committed to Europe’s security in the future as we have been in the past. Europe’s security is our security. And that is why I have said — and I say again today — that the United Kingdom is unconditionally committed to maintaining it.”

Consider the U.K.’s official position on the Balkans. At a summit focused on the region last spring, British officials complained that the EU should have a better strategy to promote its role in the area, and convince Balkan nations to pursue EU membership.

“It was odd, they were stressing the need to better communicate the role and the importance of the EU,” said an EU diplomat who closely follows the Balkans dossier and attended the meeting. “And we were thinking: ‘Really? You guys want to give us advice on this topic?’”

For journalists, British briefings on the Balkans have been similarly dissonant. In June, British diplomats briefed some members of the Brussels press corps on the importance of the Western Balkans summit, which was held in London in July. Brexit was like a big blimp floating in the room.

Some EU diplomats were dismissive of the U.K.’s effort to assert a view on the Balkans. “[Angela] Merkel let them organize it just as an act of goodwill, to show they’ll still have a say,” said another EU diplomat, referring to the German chancellor.

For U.K officials it was an important event, at which Merkel joined Theresa May in London, although the resignation of the prime minister’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson just hours earlier because of his opposition to her Brexit plan also made it awkward.

British officials appeared to see no contradiction in pushing Balkan countries to join the EU, even as Britain itself is bailing out. When a reporter demanded an explanation, British diplomats offered the oft-repeated talking point, that the U.K. is leaving the EU but not Europe.

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