At press conferences debriefing today’s EU27 Summit, the French and German leaders differed by more than nuances.

Here are straight quotes, to avoid translation losses:
– Francois Hollande stated: ‘Ce mandat [exit negotiations] sera exercé par le Conseil, avec l’appui de la Commission européenne, et celui du Parlement car c’est l’émanation, aussi, de la légitimité européenne’
– Angela Merkel spoke just before: ‘Die Verhandlungen werden von allen drei Institutionen geführt. Vor allem von der Kommission, in einer zentralen Rolle, mit Ihren Sachkenntnissen, Möglichkeiten, and Erfahrung der Beitrittsverhandlungen.’
Later she clarified that the Commission would follow the political guidelines of the Council, and the EP would accompany the negotiations, since it later has to approve the results in majority vote. She stressed again negotiating on behalf of the whole Union ‘in ihren drei Komponenten.’

(Why was she mentioning enlargement experience? Thinking already of re-enlargement negotiations? Here am I only speculating. On this point, Merkel was speaking freely, not reading a prepared briefing)

Yesterday, differences of tone appeared between the Presidents of the Council and of the Commission: Juncker markedly more agressive and less patient toward the UK government.

Putting this into perspective: which process drives what outcome?
This questions of negotiation leadership often arises, for example in trade talks (where competence differs between good and services). For Brexit, it has been in the talk since last week, and is more important than it seems: the Commission stands for the acquis communautaire, also relevant for access to the Common Market. While the Council is traditionally more open to government wishes, including (still member) UK.

Asked the same question on Monday evening, a senior EU diplomat was trying to spin in favour of the Commission. He pointed to the Treaties, and then to other negotiations. For him, the Commission managed to transform banking decisions into draft law in 6 days, working day and night, while the Council takes several months to transform migration policy into decisions. Is this a fair comparison? I am not sure.

Interestingly, during the Cameron package negotiations in February, it is ‘EU federalist’ Belgium that insisted the deal would vanish in case of a Brexit vote. Clearly, to avoid salami tactics and rewarding the UK with an even better deal leveraging a Leave vote. And guess who the Council just nominated to lead (its part of) the negotiations? A Belgian diplomat!

The French President seems to wish a tough line toward the UK, and also have a more direct say via Council leadership. Which could open negotiations to more interference from other Member States with special wishes, or UK allies…
The German Chancellor seems more patient and flexible, but would give leadership to the – tougher – Commission.
Two paradoxes! In other words, the processes they seem to push for do not reflect their actual objectives.

Next steps? Before Bratislava on 15 Septembre
Since most continentals agree that (formal) negotiations cannot start before UK triggers article 50, where are in the pre-positioning stage. Both between UK and the EU, and also between EU institutions. No doubt, the objective should be to clarify this over Summer, during ‘COREPER 27’ talks in the run-up to the Bratislava Summit.


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