A display of postcards featuring the U.K union Jack flag in London, U.K. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

U.K. an Outsider at the EU Summit, Hinting at Post-Brexit Future

(Bloomberg) -- Thursday’s European Union summit was supposed to be about relaunching the bloc after Brexit. The trouble is, Brexit hasn’t happened.

As Prime Minister Theresa May struggles to get an exit deal through the British Parliament, she politely declined the invitation to attend the meeting with the 27 other EU leaders in the 12th Century town of Sibiu, central Romania. The EU was relieved about that. It’s already divided enough over the challenges it faces in the coming months and knows Brexit may return to dominate summits again before long.

U.K. an Outsider at the EU Summit, Hinting at Post-Brexit Future

But May’s absence did not mean there was no British representation in the bucolic Transylvanian setting. A few hours before leaders talked about Iran, nationalism and their own democratic failings, Stephen Barclay, the U.K. Brexit secretary, spoke about Britain’s place in the world at a conference close to the summit.

Barclay lamented the “narrative within Europe on Brexit,” which ignores the view that it’s “an opportunity of confidence, of optimism, a desire to be more global.” Referring to one of the most vocal campaigners for the U.K.’s departure from the EU, he added that the U.K.’s decision to leave the club “certainly wasn’t the Nigel Farage, little-Englander portrayal of Brexit.”

Visiting an EU summit location without attending the meeting itself gives the U.K. a taste of things to come when it does finally leave the bloc. It presents British politicians and officials the opportunity to press the flesh, even when they can’t directly influence decisions that may affect them. If Parliament does eventually approve a Brexit deal, some ties to EU policy will remain.

Despite leaders refusing to discuss the U.K., they couldn’t ignore its presence. “Brexit is not on the agenda -- at all,” Romanian President Klaus Iohannis told reporters on his way into the meeting.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was more generous. Did he wish May was there too? “I’m missing her,” he said.

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