The Prime Minister will visit Brussels this week for the European Council Summit.
Although Theresa May will no doubt be pressed on her plans to avoid a hard border in Ireland and the future UK/EU relationship, the other leaders have more immediate problems to deal with: migration, US trade tariffs, Eurozone reform and the new government in Italy amongst them.
Brexit discussions will continue in the background. European Council President Donald Tusk visited Downing Street for talks on Monday. At the same time, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley was telling European Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier to expect the Government’s Irish border proposal next month.
It is perhaps easier to recognise this quiet progress and keep a sense of perspective here in Brussels, where Brexit rarely tops the news agenda, than in London, where the media seizes upon and analyses – again and again – every Parliamentary vote and critical comment.
Maybe that is also why many people here appreciate the commendable way Mrs May is managing one the most difficult hands ever dealt to a UK Prime Minister.
Just think for a moment what she has achieved since taking over from David Cameron in the wake of the EU referendum.
First, she has kept the process on schedule. Despite the EU’s intransigence and the competing voices back home, we remain on course to leave the bloc on March 29, 2019. Yes, there is work to be done on the Irish border backstop, but as was made clear on Monday, expect developments on that in the coming weeks.
Second, the looming deadline and pressure from European businesses and Member States anxious to avoid a hard Brexit mean Michel Barnier will soon have to stop saying ‘no’ to every idea and enter into more constructive discussions. I am confident a deal will be thrashed out at the 11th hour, the EU’s usual way of resolving difficult issues.
Third, Mrs May has secured several significant concessions from the EU. On 30 March a transition deal which the EU initially said was not on the table will take effect, providing certainty for business while the future relationship is negotiated.
A financial settlement of around €40billion has been agreed to cover UK commitments that the EU first suggested could amount to nearer €100 billion. And arrangements allowing EU citizens to claim settled status in the UK following Brexit will be overseen in the long term by British courts, not the European Court of Justice.
Last week Mrs May’s ability to broker a compromise enabled the Government to win a second Commons vote on a House of Lords amendment which, if passed, would have seriously undermined the UK’s negotiating position.
Throughout these challenges Mrs May has cut a dignified figure, winning the respect of her fellow leaders. Indeed, her international standing was demonstrated when she notched up a major diplomatic success in the wake of the Salisbury nerve agent attack, securing worldwide support for co-ordinated action against Russia.
There is still plenty of work to do, and arguably the most important agreements have yet to be struck, but Mrs May deserves respect for bringing us this far on time, with her red lines intact and her government in one piece.
She has proved herself calm, resilient and determined, all essential qualities when dealing with the EU. They will continue to be needed in the months ahead.
Conservative MEP for South West of England & Gibraltar