Britain Continues To Stumble Toward Brexit
As Brexit hangs by a thread in the United Kingdom, the European Union makes clear that renegotiation of the agreement that has been reached is a non-starter.
Even while the British government enters a crisis moment as Prime Minister Theresa May works to finalize the deal to break the United Kingdom’s ties to the European Union, the negotiators for the E.U. are making clear that renegotiating what’s already been agreed to is for the most part not an option:
Brussels is on edge, but it has no intention of going back to the Brexit drawing board.
Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told a meeting of EU27 ambassadors Friday morning that whatever political “difficulties” Theresa May is experiencing in London, the bloc has a “duty” to stand firm on its key Brexit red lines, according to EU diplomats present.
For her part, May is standing firm on the deal in the face of a gale of criticism and is intent on pushing the deal to a vote in the House of Commons. But if political opponents in her own party succeed in forcing her to seek a better deal, there is no sign that any of the EU27 red lines will change.
We cannot “compromise” or engage in “cherry-picking” or “bargaining,” Barnier told ambassadors, referring to requests to reopen the draft deal that was agreed by the British Cabinet on Wednesday. He added that he expects “difficult negotiations” ahead.
Barnier also expressed a desire to help the British government in its efforts to ratify the text in a vote of MPs. And he said that there could be room for movement on the EU side in specific areas, such as enhanced cooperation on phytosanitary regulations and so-called technical barriers to trade. It is a moment not for triumphalism, he said, but for “encouragement.”
The chief negotiator’s presentation at the more than two-hour meeting reflects a dilemma for Brussels. While EU countries want to help May get the deal through parliament, there is a reluctance at such a late stage to radically unpick the agreement — despite threats to May’s leadership and a series of ministerial resignations over the deal.
Diplomats say that some tweaks might still be possible if they could make the difference between the deal succeeding or crashing, but the kind of radical overhaul proposed by Brexiteers such as former Brexit Secretary David Davis is simply not on the table. There is “no question” of that, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday.
“If we renegotiate something it could be on very small details,” said a senior EU diplomat “[but] it will not be on the main issues.”
“Europeans are not scared, but very cautious, and everybody hopes the deal will be approved,” he added, saying that the first major challenge will be the tight timescale to consider the details of the deal before a hastily arranged EU leaders’ summit on November 25.
“Some of us will need to consult our MPs on the text, and make the necessary democratic deliberations in our countries,” the diplomat added.
“All eyes are on London,” said another EU diplomat. “We see there are some turbulences.” Asked about the mood in Brussels, the diplomat said: “It’s a feeling of relief that at least there’s a text on the table.” A third diplomat added: “Everyone is committed to getting the ball over the line.”
The diplomat cited the EU’s acceptance of an all-U.K. customs backstop — as an insurance measure to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland — and the decision to kick negotiations about fisheries access into the transition period that will immediately follow Brexit day in March next year. “It’s not clear, and it will affect millions of jobs,” said the senior EU diplomat. “There’s nothing precise.”
Barnier was briefing ambassadors on the state of ongoing talks about the political declaration — the document that will accompany the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement. Only a cursory seven-page outline of that was published on Wednesday evening and the chief negotiator indicated that several issues are still in play.
On security matters including participation in EU agencies such as Europol and Eurojust he said, according to two EU diplomats, that the U.K. does still “not accept” the full ramifications of not being an EU member country. But Barnier added that both sides share the aim of close cooperation. And on mechanisms to ensure there is a level playing field between British and EU businesses after Brexit, EU ambassadors expressed reservations in the discussion following Barnier’s briefing.
“Any regulatory gap is a serious issue,” said the senior diplomat, adding that the text “isn’t clear” on environmental and social measures. “The consequences are important because it could enhance any regulatory gap on major issues.” One country’s representative is also “worried” that the text offers too much to the U.K. on services.
As May continues to try to save the Brexit plan that she presented to her cabinet, notwithstanding the fact that it clearly seems to be destabilizing her hold on power and could cause her to lose crucial support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), these statements from the E.U.’s Brexit minister make clear that the European Union is unlikely to agree to significant changes to the deal that the Brits have put forward. This likely does not mean that there wouldn’t be the possibility of some agreement on minor changes to the proposal in order to get the deal through the House of Commons, but it should send a strong signal to May and the rest of the British political elite that, at least as far as the European Union is concerned, the broad outlines of the final deal have been set and that any effort to try to turn back the clock and create major changes to what has been negotiated is not going to be an option.
This is of particular concern because of what it means for the future of May’s government. As you may recall,the snap election that May called in April of last year resulted in the conservatives losing seats in the House of Commons, forcing them to enter into an agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party under which the DUP would vote with the Tories on essential bills and on any vote of confidence in the government in exchange for Tory concessions to the DUP on certain policy issues of concern to them. One of the main areas of concern with respect to Brexit is the DUP demand that Northern Ireland would not be treated any differently from the rest of the United Kingdom when it came to Brexit. However, in order to maintain the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that has been crucial to keeping the peace in that region for more than 20 years now, May’s Brexit plan would keep certain E.U. regulations in effect in Northern Ireland even though they would no longer apply elsewhere in the United Kingdom. This led the DUP to vote with the opposition Labour Party on a recent finance bill that would ordinarily have fallen within the category of those bills that it had pledged to support under the 2017 agreement with the Tories. While the DUP has characterized this as a ‘warning shot’ to the May Government rather than a sign that the “confidence and supply” agreement between the parties was dead. Nonetheless, this latest development is being seen by some observers as yet another sign that May’s Government is barely surviving at this point and that any future crisis could bring it all crashing down even as Brexit reaches the breaking point.