May's Larger-Than-Life Lawyer Becomes EU's Brexit Villain No. 1

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May sent Attorney General Geoffrey Cox to Brussels to clinch a last-minute Brexit agreement. Those on the European side fear he might be doing more harm than good.

Cox, a pro-Brexit lawyer and member of May’s Cabinet who’s becoming famous in Britain for his booming baritone and lofty style, is seen as pivotal in getting members of the British Parliament to swing behind her deal when they vote on Tuesday. He’s got the backing of many Brexit-supporting lawmakers because he’s been a critic of May’s strategy.

May's Larger-Than-Life Lawyer Becomes EU's Brexit Villain No. 1

But far from easing the path to winning an improved deal, Cox has riled senior EU officials and made it harder to get a breakthrough, according to people on the EU side with knowledge of the negotiations. They say his flamboyant style, which plays well at home, is received poorly in the sober meeting rooms of the European Commission.

Relations between the two sides are more tense than at any time since talks started in June 2017, the people said. Cox acknowledged negotiations were “robust,” but on Thursday said he was surprised by what European officials had been relaying about their sessions.

Cox’s role, in the end, might matter more at home than in Brussels. The EU was never likely to give much away -- whoever the negotiator was. May chose Cox because he’s a Brexiteer and she’s hoping that if he is satisfied by what he can wrest from the EU, then there’s a chance pro-Brexit hardliners will be too.

‘Codpiece’

The trouble is, lawmakers already see the whole exercise as Cox marking his own homework. The “codicil” he was meant to be seeking to modify the unpopular deal is now ridiculed as “Cox’s codpiece.”

The attorney general himself used the term in Parliament on Thursday, in an unusually bawdy display of his Shakespearean theatrics.

“It’s come to be called ‘Cox’s codpiece,” he said, to laughter. “What I am concerned to ensure is that what’s inside the codpiece is in full working order.”

While Cox’s mastery of fine legal detail won him admirers around the U.K. cabinet table, EU officials say he’s put their backs up by how he advertises his expertise to persuade them to give ground. The EU’s negotiating team, which hasn’t changed since the talks started, is packed with lawyers.

The way Cox addresses senior EU officials has rankled them, the people said.

To some extent, Cox is a victim of circumstance. The U.K. is onto its third Brexit secretary -- effectively the chief negotiator -- since the talks began. Part of the problem, EU officials said, is that they have to start from scratch explaining the reasoning behind the most contentious parts of the Brexit deal to Cox, who took part in the talks for the first time last month.

The substance of Cox’s demands have also frustrated the EU team. They told him that his idea to change the backstop plan for avoiding a hard border with Ireland, to allow an independent arbitration panel to rule that the U.K. can withdraw from the arrangement, is unworkable.

Cox thinks that the current deal leaves Britain at risk of being trapped by EU customs rules potentially forever and it needs an escape route. The U.K. thinks the EU is being intransigent.

EU negotiators get the impression that Cox views the problem similar to a company lawyer preparing for the prospect of taking the EU to court rather than it being a political issue, one of the people said.

On Thursday, U.K. and EU officials discussed how to move out of the current impasse. If they agree on a way forward, Cox is likely to return to Brussels before the end of the week. But while both sides still want a deal, they are pessimistic about his prospects.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.