Theresa May Gave A Brexit Speech In Brussels, But Nothing Has Changed As Far As The EU Is Concerned
For all May’s efforts, Britain and the EU remain in deadlock, with a proposed mid-November summit cancelled due to lack of progress.
BRUSSELS — The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, had asked Theresa May to bring “new facts” to a summit of EU leaders to unlock the stalemate in Brexit talks.
She didn’t bring many.
Addressing the 27 EU leaders in a speech lasting about 15 minutes, May reiterated her commitment to a legally operative backstop in Northern Ireland, but failed to put a new solution on the table.
“She basically said ‘let us be creative’,” a senior European government official told BuzzFeed News in a text message.
The official described May’s tone as “optimistic, non-antagonistic”, but when asked whether the prime minister’s intervention would change anything, they replied: “nothing.”
After May had finished, she left the room to no reaction, and the 27 leaders dined without her.
During the discussion that followed, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, repeated earlier words that “much more time” was needed to conclude the negotiations.
The 27 leaders renewed their full backing of Barnier, and the need for a backstop if a deal is to be concluded before Brexit day in March 2019. However, a leader from a major eurozone country stressed that no-deal would be bad for Ireland too, a senior government official said.
Negotiations have run aground on the issue of the so-called backstop, an insurance policy to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland under all circumstances. Britain wants the backstop to be time-limited, and to apply to the whole UK. The EU demands it be all-weather, applicable until and unless there is another workable solution in place, and for parts of it to be unique to Northern Ireland.
The latest ideas floated by the EU include an offer to extend the transition period by 12 months into 2021, and a softer rebranding of the backstop, which would see the EU’s insurance policy used only if an alternative — that envisions the UK in a customs union with the EU, and Northern Ireland remaining, in effect, in the EU’s single market for goods — and a future trade deal aren’t agreed in time.
The president of the European parliament Antonio Tajani told reporters on Wednesday evening that the parliament was in favour of extending the transition period to three years.
May later confirmed to reporters that the idea of extending the transition period "for a matter of months" was under consideration but "not expected to be used". The 27 leaders didn’t take a decision on extending the transition on Wednesday, a senior European government official told BuzzFeed News.
May concluded her speech saying that “courage, trust and leadership” were needed. According to the senior official she told leaders that, if the UK and the EU didn’t reach a deal “those outside the EU who claim the current world order is crumbling will cheer. We don’t want them to do that.”
This week’s European Council summit was meant to be a moment of truth: The withdrawal agreement, the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU, agreed; an early draft blueprint of the future EU–UK relationship published; and the path for a special meeting in mid-November as a ceremony to sign off on a final package paved.
But without the hoped for breakthrough last weekend, EU leaders agreed during Wednesday’s dinner that there hadn’t been sufficient progress, and decided against the mid-November summit – but stood ready to convene a meeting once Barnier decided that there’d been “decisive progress”.
The leaders also touched upon no-deal preparations.
Earlier in the day, two EU officials told BuzzFeed News, the EU could start releasing documents detailing the dire consequences of a no-deal Brexit as early as next week.
Brussels has held off releasing a series of notes that spell out the impact of a no-deal Brexit, and how the EU plans to address these. Release of the documents could begin as early as next week, said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss the plans.
An exit deal is close, officials on both sides claim, but the unresolved issues are substantive, and not minutiae that can be fudged away — and greater still are May’s domestic political difficulties.
Although the EU’s own processes would, technically, allow negotiations to stretch into early 2019, officials and diplomats BuzzFeed News spoke to this week indicated that December’s European Council summit is likely to be the last possible date to seal a deal because of the time needed by the UK parliament to ratify any agreement.
The EU’s thinking is that extending the transition, which would need to be fleshed out in detail and formally agreed by EU leaders, could act as a strong enough hint that the backstop would never be deployed.
“The longer transition gives more time, and minimises the risk of the backstop ever being needed,” a senior diplomat from a major EU government said on Wednesday. “The backstop is a solution to be used in case of an emergency, only if we cannot agree on future arrangements,” said the diplomat.
“We are spending so much time debating the insurance policy instead of the close future relationship that we all want."
The diplomat warned, however, that the EU’s position — and the leaders’ backing of Ireland — was unshakeable.
Asked what would happen to the Northern Ireland border in the event of no deal, the diplomat said: "I don’t know," adding that Northern Ireland would be one of many, many issues. No deal would be a "catastrophe that we all want to avoid", the diplomat said.
While the EU is open to a customs union in future, another official told BuzzFeed News that the shape of the exit deal cannot be too dissimilar to what is now on the table.
“We’ve tried everything,” said the official. They cautioned that while the political declaration on the framework of the future relationship could be vague, the exit deal had to be precise. “Despite the niceties, the backstop is still the same. You cannot fudge the backstop. You need a legal text that prevents a hard border.”
So May will need to, first of all, convince EU leaders that she can extricate herself from the corner she appears to have been boxed into by members of her own cabinet, hard Brexiteer backbenchers, and the DUP, whose votes her government relies on.
The unionist party is adamant that it will not accept any scenario where Northern Ireland is treated differently from the rest of the UK. And many in the prime minister’s own party are reluctant to sign up to any deal that they feel could keep the UK tied into a customs union with the EU indefinitely.
Diplomats have welcomed the more reassuring tone she adopted in a parliamentary debate this week. “At least she hasn’t written an article in a German newspaper without telling anyone first, and [Brexit secretary, Dominic] Raab hasn’t gone round giving interviews rubbishing Barnier’s proposals,” a European diplomat said. (May published an op-ed in a German newspaper on the eve of the Salzburg summit, and then recited the same talking points at the meeting itself).
Still, the way the EU sees it, the ball is in May’s court. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said: “For a breakthrough to take place, besides goodwill, we need new facts. Tomorrow, I am going to ask Prime Minister May whether she has concrete proposals on how to break the impasse. Only such proposals can determine if a breakthrough is possible.”
May needs to “take responsibility and be constructive”, Germany’s EU affairs minister, Michael Roth, echoed.
But on the eve of this week’s European Council, the UK appeared to be already downplaying the chances of a breakthrough by November.
“I think she is repeating the same mistakes,” an EU leader told BuzzFeed News in a text message on Tuesday.
The story of this week’s summit could have taken a very different turn.
European ambassadors were told at a meeting with the European Commission last Friday that negotiations would continue into the weekend, that talks could go either way, but there would be a push for an agreement.
Capitals were cautiously optimistic that a deal was within sight. The diplomats were presented with a timetable outlining the steps that would be taken should an agreement be reached.
A meeting of sherpas, the diplomatic emissaries representing the 27 leaders, would gather on Monday evening to examine a text they hoped May’s cabinet would have signed up to earlier in the day.
This would have set the stage for this week’s European Council to greenlight the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU, and the publication of the outline of the future UK–EU relationship in the form of annotated notes on points of convergence and divergence, for negotiators to work through, with a special Brexit summit in mid-November marked as the finish line.
That was the plan, and there were signs that a broad agreement could be scoped out. Some European diplomats were even briefing that a deal had been done as they were called for a meeting at 6:30pm on Sunday. A sherpa meeting was scheduled for the next day, per the blueprint set out 48 hours earlier.
However, when talks broke up at around 2am on Sunday, it was already evident that a deal was unlikely to be reached, a source close to the negotiations told BuzzFeed News. When Brexit secretary Dominic Raab was dispatched to Brussels later that day, he took the air out of any agreement, following discussions lasting just over an hour with Michel Barnier.
Ambassadors were told that progress had been made on a number of issues, but the UK could not agree to backstop proposals that were specific to Northern Ireland, and not UK-wide. “London needs more time to reflect,” a diplomatic note seen by BuzzFeed News stated. The sherpa meeting was cancelled, and in a short memo to member states afterwards, leaders were briefed that several key issues remain unresolved, and no further negotiations were planned ahead of the European Council.
According to a Whitehall insider, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity, Britain’s lead negotiator, Olly Robbins, would have been operating within a mandate given to him by May.
Although Robbins had cited legal arguments to explain his government’s position, the prime minister’s decision to pull the plug was more likely down to the brutal realisation that she didn’t have the numbers to face down a potentially fatal cabinet revolt, the insider said.
A more optimistic European diplomat suggested that Sunday’s apparent reversal could be all about timing. “It is possible that May feels she needs the withdrawal agreement and the outline of the future relationship to be agreed at the same time if she is to sell the deal to ministers, and get through a meaningful vote,” the diplomat said. “That synchronicity simply wasn’t in place yet.”