Brussels, Belgium - Jan 12, 2017: Europa Building in Brussels, Belgium.The Europa building becomes the home of the Council of the European Union and the European Council from 2017, Photo from Shutterstock.

EU leaders meet on Thursday and Friday in Brussels, and this afternoon, Theresa May is presenting to EU leaders her “generous” offer on the post-Brexit rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU. 

Already, on Tuesday, talks of May’s upcoming generous proposal didn’t warm the hearts of rational bureaucrats who have signalled that generosity isn’t exactly the issue, but “continuity and fairness” when it comes to EU citizens’ rights.

There is also a noticeable U-turn in sentiment and language, which is a far-cry from Theresa May’s earlier rigid stance or Boris Johnson and David Davis’ warnings and arrogant slogans against the European Union. Catchy phrases like having our cake and eating it and taking back control of immigration have now receded, replaced by a less indulgent, and humbler tone, that is inviting rather than deprecating. 

Not to mention Ukip’s golden boy Arron Banks’ mention of “illegals,” and Farage’s association of immigration with terrorism. The Brexiteer boys appear and disappear at will and at their own convenience, but Theresa May’s grave position demands that she adopts a softer tone when dealing with Brussels’ wolves. There is no room for overconfident declarations or demands, but only logical arguments and the pursuit of a mutually beneficial and cooperative relationship. Theresa May is currently seen, according to Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, as a person that lacks authority and that there is a lot of confusion in Brussels about what Britain really wants.

What is the EU Summit?

The leaders of 28 member states are attending a two-day European Council meeting in Brussels. It takes place four times a year, with this year’s French president Emmanuel Macron making his first appearance.

Today, the EU Summit’s main focus will be security and migration, with discussions on counter-terrorism, common defence, asylum seekers and strengthening border cooperation, as well as Russia and the Paris climate agreement. Theresa May is expected to reveal her plans to guarantee the rights of 3.2m EU citizens living in the UK and 1m UK citizens living across the EU. Her presentation will be brief and there won’t be any discussions with the other 27 representatives. Her goal is to provide assurances and propose, what she has called, a “big generous offer.” 

Bone of contention

After the working dinner, the 27 leaders will meet without May to discuss the Brexit negotiations and the relocation of two EU agencies based in Britain. These are going to be the apple of discord among members states which will be competing to host the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Banking Authority (EBA).

EU diplomats fear that unity among the EU’s leaders might be threatened, not only from Brexit itself, but mainly as a result of the Brexit negotiations and the competition over who gets to host these two key organisations. Both the EMA and the EBA are based at Canary Wharf in east London and the EU expects the UK to pay for their relocation. Initially, David Davis said that the two agencies didn’t need to move, but this was immediately rejected by EU officials. An EU diplomat said that "If we fail to agree on even the rules of how to do this, then we fall at the first hurdle for our unity over Brexit. The Brits will be popping the champagne corks if we can't agree."

EU27 not that bothered about Brexit

Sabine Weyand, the deputy EU Brexit negotiator, clarified that the Brexit talks won’t be the main focus of the summit and that May shouldn’t hope to strike a deal on the issue of citizens’ rights before the Brexit talks that the 27 leaders will have later this evening. May would not be given the right to negotiate with the EU leaders because this would be done according to plan and through the EU’s negotiating team.

Today, Angela Merkel said that the summit is about security, terror and the economy and that “For me, the future of the EU27 take precedence over the talks of Britain’s exit. We’re of course committed to these talks and these will happen in good faith, but the focus has to be on the EU27.” 

She stressed that the EU’s economy is growing, something that is reflected in the growing support for the EU. There has been a considerable shift the last year from an earlier anti-EU sentiment to a more favourable attitude towards to the EU. Brexit has partly facilitated this change and the UK referendum vote has quenched the nationalist thirst, with people becoming more aware of the difficulties and the realities of a post-Brexit UK and economy.

While some aren’t that bothered about Brexit, others simply hate it. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that he wants to discuss internal market and migration and that he hopes that the UK will retain its ties to the internal market after it leaves the bloc. Accepting the referendum result, he didn’t hesitate to share his feelings: “I am an Anglophile, I hate Brexit from every angle.” Who said that the bureaucrats don’t have feelings?

Others, chose idealism and hope, with just a tiny dose of humour. Speaking before the summit, the European Council President Donald Tusk was optimistic that the UK might remain within the EU, saying that the “EU was built on dreams that seemed impossible to achieve, so who knows? You may say I am a dreamer — I am not the only one.”

Unfortunately for the UK, the positive economic data from the EU, the recent Greek bailout, the rise of pro-European sentiment and the defeat of nationalist parties have shown that the EU is doing well, and that the UK is leaving at the worst possible moment.