May earns grudging admiration in Brussels

Under fire on all fronts back home, British Prime Minister Theresa May has nevertheless earned grudging respect in Europe for what many see as her resilience in the Brexit negotiations.
As May arrives in Brussels to finalise the deal, European officials are hard pressed to think of any other British politician willing or able to see through an orderly, albeit painful, divorce.
Though Britain could still crash out of the European Union with no deal, many believe only May could have taken the negotiations this far.
The EU’s Donald Tusk complained of “the surprisingly tough and in fact uncompromising” stance May and her team took at an EU summit in Salzburg in September.
But the European Council president who convenes summits added: “I say these words as a close friend of the UK and a true admirer of Prime Minister May.”
“A compromise, good for all, is still possible,” the former Polish premier added.
For Tusk, the two sides have been carrying out a damage limitation exercise, warning Brexit will hurt both Britain and the remaining 27 EU countries.
But May insists the draft withdrawal agreement sealed last week is “the best deal for Britain” after 17 arduous and bitter months of negotiations.
May has so far defied the odds, buffeted between the EU’s red negotiating lines and angry politicians within her own Conservative Party and opposition parties.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell echoed a broader EU view of May when he spoke on Tuesday at an event hosted by the news organisation Politico.
“As far as I know she looks like being a quite resilient woman, someone who is really tough and having a strong stance and resisting,” Borrell said.
In contrast, Borrell saw her predecessor David Cameron as a reckless poker player for calling the referendum that produced the leave vote he opposed.
A European source said May “is a welcome change to Cameron,” who took a “huge gamble” with the referendum and was seen as “more arrogant”.
The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, praised the 62-year-old daughter of a vicar for her grasp of detail, determination and resilience.
May supported Britain remaining in the EU, but has promised to deliver on the request of the voters and now, in the view of one Brussels official has “the toughest job in Britain and possibly Europe,” one that nobody else in her party wants.
The EU diplomat called May a “resolute woman in an era of small men,” praising her for “plodding on” trying to deliver a deal she believes is better than none at all.
“She is sailing an almost rudderless ship through an Atlantic squall with a hapless crew trying to capsize her at every turn,” the diplomat said.
“History should hopefully look a lot kinder upon her handling of Brexit than current public opinion suggests.”
Rosa Balfour, a Brussels-based analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said Europeans are “quite grateful” to have May as a steady interlocutor amid a “certain amount of shock and horror” over the disarray in London.
Balfour said May failed in her bid to divide the EU, which has been bent on deterring other member states from leaving the bloc.
In the end, Balfour said, “the EU has shaped the deal essentially,” because of all the discord in London, infuriating the hardline Brexiteers.
Brexiteers are, for example, angry at clauses in the draft that they see as putting a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain.
But Balfour, a dual British-Italian citizen, said May will likely get a more favourable political declaration for future ties to accompany the divorce settlement. “This will help Theresa May sell the deal in parliament,” Balfour said. “In this respect, everything that the EU has done is actually indirectly supporting May’s standing in London.” — AFP

Lachlan Carmichael