May must go it alone at first EU meeting in the hot seat

This blog is published on The Times website.

Theresa May

Theresa May will find herself seated between the prime ministers of Malta and Estonia at her first summit of EU leaders this afternoon. She won’t be sitting there for long.

EU tradition dictates that every six months leaders shift one place to their left, reflecting the bloc’s system of rotating presidencies. For 27 European countries, that means a step closer to their day in the sun. For the UK, it marks a lurch closer to exit.

Mrs May is no stranger to these bland surroundings, nor to the stale smell of cigarettes wafting through the air from the smoking booth outside the summit room. She attended meetings of home affairs ministers assiduously, becoming one of the most experienced around the table and building close alliances to promote — and defend — the UK’s security interests.

She will, however, notice one significant difference today when she returns as prime minister. Unlike other meetings of EU ministers, leaders go it alone. Mrs May won’t have a single adviser, ambassador or diplomat at her side to advise on policy detail, suggest changes to the summit communiqué, or even to have a quick moan with as yet another prime minister repeats the same point made several times already.

Emails to advisers sat in the UK’s delegation room are the best source of urgent advice.

While Brexit will be at the forefront of Mrs May’s mind – and her voluminous briefing pack — this won’t be a crunch summit for UK exit. Tougher, longer and more acrimonious meetings lie ahead.

Issues other than the ramifications of the UK’s referendum are set to dominate the agenda. Russia, Syria, EU trade policy and migration will focus the minds of leaders.

Having said that, Mrs May still faces challenges in Brussels. It’s always a tightrope act for a British prime minister who must balance the needs of the party, the country, and the demands of a voracious media pack with the requirement to build alliances – and not burn bridges – with fellow EU leaders.

The communication strategy will require careful preparation. It’s clearly sensible to make sure the “lobby” of political journalists from London have positive stories to write about the prime minister’s exploits, and don’t end up filling their pages with French plots to nobble the Brits.

But Mrs May would be ill-advised to let feeding the British tabloids trump building relationships and trust with those leaders whom she will soon have to negotiate the UK’s exit. Her diplomats will have carefully managed expectations ahead of her dinner intervention. Mrs May has done the same, sensibly taking the time to visit her fellow leaders, including the prime ministers of Spain and Denmark, over the past few weeks.

And her reward for surviving her first European Council meeting? A long lunch on Friday with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. Welcome to the top table.

Aled Williams is Senior Director at FTI Consulting in Brussels and former spokesman for the UK government in Brussels.

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