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With Brexit approaching UK’s voice in Brussels grows quiet

For years a British foreign minister has shuttled once a month to Brussels or Luxembourg to meet their European counterparts. The crises of the world have crowded the agenda: from the Arab spring to the annexation of Crimea, coups, stolen elections and intractable wars.

Monday, in theory, could be the last time the United Kingdom name plate is on the table. While a Brexit extension is a near-certainty, the official departure date is still 29 March.

Uncertainty over exit day requires careful diplomacy. On Monday the British minister will have the chance to weigh in on the EU’s China strategy, ahead of a summit with Beijing on 9 April.

While British officials remain involved in discussions, the UK will hang back on strategic questions about how the EU should approach China. Nobody wants to be seen as lecturing European allies, while sitting in the EU departure lounge. A government spokesperson said: “The UK will continue to take a full part in discussions at the [Foreign Affairs Council], focusing on those issues that matter most to the UK and EU.”

Other day-to-day EU business provides a jarring contrast with the government’s Brexit strategy: one of Theresa May’s last acts as an EU leader will be to sign a routine communique on strengthening the single market – the one she insists Britain must leave.

Meanwhile, the UK’s 73 MEPs do not know if they will be out of a job in a fortnight, or in three months. “It is really unsettling, but we are the least people to worry about,” said the Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder, speaking just outside the chamber in Strasbourg under the strident ring of a voting bell.

The uncertainty facing MEPs is nothing, she adds, compared with the unknowns confronting business. “A politician’s life is always uncertain, you never know if you are going to come back for the next mandate.”

MEPs who back the government also acknowledge the uncertainty. “It’s hard to know [how Brexit will end] because everything is still possible from where we are today,” said Daniel Dalton, a British Conservative MEP for the West Midlands.

He was speaking last month before May suffered a second humiliating defeaton her Brexit deal. The prime minister will try again to get the Commons to support her deal on Tuesday. If that fails and Brexit is deferred for more than three months, Dalton and his colleagues will have to decide if they wish to run again in European elections.

Although delay is on the cards, wheels are in motion for the long-planned Brexit day. British MEPs have been told to clear their offices by 29 March, as their passes will stop working soon after. Redundancy notices have been served to British MEP assistants, although contract renewal notices are now in the works for some.

“It’s uncertain, it’s unnerving that we still don’t have an answer,” one assistant said. “If there is any kind of extension that is a bonus, but for me I’ve always been planning on 29 March.”

Outside the Brexit hothouse, the reality has not fully hit home for everyone. “I’m getting invites to host events in Brussels in April,” the Labour MEP Seb Dance tweeted recently. “What can I say?!”

“There is a sort of resignation in the air in recent weeks,” he told the Guardian. “It is not one I share. I have always said all along the odds are against stopping Brexit – that’s obvious, but if anything is going to change it will be in the last few weeks.”

“Psychologically, it is very difficult, it is stressful but I don’t feel as fatalistic as everyone else. I will be fighting this thing until the very end.”

He was speaking last month, after voting on the future of the common agricultural policy – and dismissed the suggestion this is a waste of time for a British MEP. “We will either be indirectly subject to [EU rules] or directly subject to them,” he said.

“This idea that you just leave the common agricultural policy and have your own policy, it just doesn’t work, because of the other trade-offs,” he said, suggesting the UK will have to choose between EU or US agricultural standards, depending on the trade deals sought.

Behind the closed doors of EU council negotiating rooms, British officials have taken a different approach. The UK continues to speak out on crises or short-term business, whether that is the war in Yemen, or the EU’s 2018 budget. But on longer-term issues, the UK is less vocal.

The British presence in Brussels, however, is not scaling back. About 50 Foreign Office staff work at the UK’s permanent representation in Brussels, a 50% increase since 2016. Officials are now thinking hard about how to preserve British influence, when there is no British voice or vote in the room.

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