Ministers had been holding out some faint hope (at least publicly) that Brexit trade talks could start this month. It was an unlikely prospect. Jean-Claude Juncker warned only a few weeks ago that it would take a ‘miracle’ for that to happen. Now, it’s official that a Brexit miracle hasn’t take place: Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has said Brussels’ new timetable is based on the ‘hope for sufficient progress’ to be made by the end of this year, rather than in October.
This makes it clear the EU is determined to milk its trump card - stalling on talking trade - for all its worth: hardly much of a surprise. But Tusk’s message today also hints at a softening of tone in Brussels. Beforehand, EU politicians were doing their best to be neutral on whether they wanted things to progress. It was (or at least it was largely presented as) a matter of take-it-or-leave it; this is the Brexit timetable and it’s down to Britain whether it wants to stick to it or not. The implication was that it didn’t bother the EU much at all whether things moved forward. Of course, it seemed unlikely this was really what the likes of Tusk thought. But the pretence was there. Tusk’s message today changes that and is perhaps the first - subtle - hint of the fact that the EU wants what Britain wants: a Brexit deal.
As well as suggesting he was hopeful things would move forward by Christmas, Tusk also said the EU is not preparing for a Brexit no-deal. Taken at his word, this again reinforces the point that, despite the occasional flashpoint, things are moving to a more amicable place in Brexit talks. This is no accident and shows the success of May’s speech in Florence in convincing the EU that Britain wants to play nice.
On both sides, the rhetoric is becoming less inflamed and Tusk’s hope for things to move forward makes that clear, even if the original timetable has now slipped back. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing from here. The pressure will be on at the European Council Summit on 14th December and if the EU doesn’t deem ‘sufficient progress’ has been made by then, Brexit trade talks will be booted into the New Year. Companies concerned about a Brexit cliff-edge will have little choice (if they haven’t already) to roll out contingency plans for a Brexit no-deal. But all the signs are that Brussels is warming to the British government’s approach to Brexit.