It was a busy night time for the cooks on the British ambassador’s residence in Brussels on Monday night time.
The opulent constructing, sandwiched between the Swiss and American embassies on the Belgian capital’s grand Rue Ducale, was the venue for 2 separate however simultaneous dinners.
One, we knew about – the opposite, a curious assembly, we did not.
The primary of the 2 dinners was publicly billed. It was Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay’s first assembly with EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
The assembly was the consequence of Theresa Could’s return to Brussels final week for her assembly with EU Fee president Jean-Claude Juncker.
This dinner was vital if solely as a result of it constitutes “negotiations” of kinds between two sides who’ve probably not engaged straight since earlier than Christmas.
Bear in mind – the British and EU negotiating groups signed off on the Brexit Withdrawal Settlement and the accompanying Political Declaration on the long run relationship in December.
Collectively the paperwork characterize the Brexit divorce treaty. However ever since, the deal has been blocked in Westminster.
The company at this publicised dinner included Steve Barclay MP from the Division for Exiting the EU and Olly Robbins, Mrs Could’s Europe adviser from Quantity 10.
With them have been Michel Barnier from the European Fee and his two deputies: Sabine Weyand and Stephanie Riso.
The host was the UK’s everlasting consultant to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow.
It was, judging by the menu, a scrumptious meal. Pan-fried North Sea sole with Scottish scallops and Welsh samphire adopted by roast duck breast, then pear parfait and British cheeses. All washed down with Sancerre and St Emilion.
The important thing focus of the dinner was to discover methods to get the Withdrawal Settlement by way of Westminster even though the EU will not reopen it or take away the backstop.
After a few hours, Michel Barnier delivered with a well-known message: “We held constructive talks. It is clear from our aspect that we’re not going to reopen the Withdrawal Settlement however we are going to proceed our dialogue within the coming days. That’s all.”
The sensation amongst a vital variety of MPs in Westminster, as voiced by Boris Johnson this week, is “after all they will say that now. However quickly they will budge”.
An announcement from a UK spokesperson stated: “The assembly was constructive and Mr Barclay and Mr Barnier agreed to additional talks within the coming days and that their groups would proceed to work within the meantime on discovering a manner ahead.”
However in one other eating room in the identical constructing (presumably consuming from the identical menu) was a way more curious gathering.
Simply after 7pm, Sky Information cameras noticed the previous president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, arriving by limo on the residence.
When you do not bear in mind Mr Van Rompuy, it’s possible you’ll bear in mind the extraordinary second when Nigel Farage known as him a “low-grade financial institution clerk” to his face within the European Parliament chamber in 2011.
“Who’re you?!” Mr Farage had jeered. “You’ve the looks of a humid rag and the charisma of a low-grade financial institution clerk.”
It was a second that was as embarrassing to British europhiles because it was thrilling to eurosceptics. Anyway – what was Mr Van Rompuy doing on the British residence in Brussels?
Effectively I am instructed he was attending a separate personal dinner with Mrs Could’s deputy David Lidington MP. And I’m instructed that it was a gathering Mrs Could had particularly requested to debate adjustments to Irish backstop.
The workforce at 10 Downing Road see Mr Van Rompuy as an “influencer”, and David Lidington was the person to satisfy him.
Many on this aspect of the Channel contemplate Mr Lidington to be one of many few senior British politicians who actually understands.
He was David Cameron’s Europe minister from 2010 to 2016 and is seen as a really succesful politician and diplomat – regardless of being unsuccessful in Mr Cameron’s bid to safe concessions from the EU which might persuade the British public to vote to stay within the EU.
Once you point out Mr Lidington’s identify in Brussels – on the fee, the council or the parliament – folks have a tendency to talk extremely of him. That is greater than may be stated for just about each different senior UK politician.
Mr Lidington and Mr Van Rompuy additionally know one another. There’s an present rapport.
Just a few months in the past, Mr Van Rompuy instructed The Observer British menace of no deal wouldn’t spook the EU aspect into shifting place.
“These [no deal] threats is not going to work vis-a-vis the European Union… I can’t think about British prime minister or a accountable British authorities is even contemplating critically a no deal, enjoying with the financial way forward for the nation and its folks,” he stated in August final yr.
Did he say the identical privately on the Monday night time dinner? We do not understand how the Lidington/Van Rompuy dinner went.
However I’m instructed that after Mr Van Rompuy left the residence, Mr Lidington switched eating rooms to catch the tail finish of the opposite dinner – the one with Steve Barclay and Michel Barnier. All of them had espresso collectively.
Mrs Could is urging MPs to present her a bit of extra time to enhance the Brexit deal.
She’s asking them to not tie her arms by forcing her to increase Article 50, thus delaying Brexit. She is utilizing the clock and menace of “no deal” to her favour for now.
After we look again at this Brexit course of we might uncover that innocuous personal dinners, like Monday night time’s between Mrs Could’s deputy and the previous European Council Ppresident, have been key moments.
Proper now the UK wants all of the “influencers” it will possibly get. Herman Van Rompuy is one.
“Each little helps?” I stated to a UK supply final night time.
The anxious nod which got here again stated all of it.