January 31, 2019
EU will play hardball until February 14, and stick to backstop beyond
The EU reaction yesterday tell us two things. the House of Commons votes on Tuesday night and Theresa May’s subsequent shift in her negotiating stance have substantially increased the likelihood of a no deal-Brexit - unless, that is, a majority emerges in the Commons to accept either the backstop or a close-enough permanent relationship making the backstop unnecessary. Second, any concession to make the required cave-in of the Commons slightly less painful will leave the substance of the backstop and the rest of the withdrawal treaty essentially unchanged, and will only be delivered when the prospect of the UK falling into the economic and political abyss of no-deal Brexit is close enough to bring the Commons – as the EU side sees it –to their senses.
A codicil –perhaps a joint interpretative instrument such as the one agreed to facilitate the signing the CETA deal with Canada – is all that is conceivable. But it will only state, albeit with more legal force, what the EU has been repeating time and again anyway. The backstop is not intended to be permanent and the EU is eager to see it superseded by a negotiated framework making the insurance policy obsolete or unnecessary. What the EU will not concede is a time limit to the backstop, a unilateral right for the UK to exit from it, or an agreement to discard it for untested and hypothetical technology that allegedly makes physical border checks unnecessary. `
All this is the conclusion we draw both from the substance and tone of the responses by the leading Brussels players yesterday, as well as from the statements, signals or silence from EU capitals. At an EP debate in Brussels Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstaft, Elmar Brok and others all spoke to the effect of leaving Theresa May no prospect to bring home any meaningful concessions when she reports to MPs on February 14 on the attempt to negotiate the backstop away. The EU’s unmistakable current intention is to leave the prime minister essentially empty-handed, and the EU side is counting on a worsening sense of crisis in London, fuelled by uncertainty about the EU’s ultimate negotiating stance, before making - if it does - any last-minute concessions of its own.
Why such an unbending stance? In part, the answer is tactics. But this is now very clearly underpinned by a growing sense of dismay and anger, felt across the institutions and political groups in Brussels, about the way the UK’s political establishment continues to handle the looming crisis. Brok, in an interview, spoke of his sense of despair. Barnier, with emotion in his voice, charged May in the EP with distancing herself from the agreement she herself had negotiated. Juncker said that the Irish border issue was not an Irish border issue, but an EU border issue, and this is something that London must understand. Both he and Barnier stressed that the integrity of the single market was at stake here, and not just the Good Friday agreement - the unspoken part of the message being that, without an adequate deal with the UK or border checks, there would be massive smuggling from Northern Ireland into the EU.
We note that the UK is now haemorrhaging soft power virtually by the day, with an erosion of faith in London’s ability to act as a competent and responsible counterpart when the time comes to negotiate a permanent framework for the future relationship. What is in question is not the good faith of British officialdom, or even the good intentions of Theresa May. It is the current and future ability of the UK’s main political parties to rise above ideological trench warfare even at a time of national crisis. It was astounding, said Brok and Verhofstadt, that there had not been any serious attempt in the Commons to put country before party until now.