The European Union has told ambassadors of the remaining 27 member states that it’s hard to see how Theresa May’s attempts to win the cross-party support of MPs for her Brexit deal will work now, and that the work should have been done long ago, according to a diplomatic note seen by BuzzFeed News.
The note is of a briefing provided to the ambassadors on Wednesday following Tuesday evening’s vote in the UK parliament, which saw MPs reject the withdrawal agreement by 432–202 on Tuesday — a historic margin of 230 votes.
The EU expects May’s outreach efforts, which she announced in the House of Commons immediately after the vote, to focus on trying to gain support for her agreement or something similar. Despite the scale of her defeat, she has so far indicated that she will not budge on the fundamental principles that shaped it.
Officials, the note says, believe that the exercise will take weeks, and they expressed doubts that it would work now having come so late in the process.
The ambassadors were also told that May is not expected in Brussels anytime soon. Underlining a position set out on Tuesday night, the EU said there was currently no need for a special meeting of leaders to be organised because the problem is in London, not in Brussels, and meeting now would serve no purpose.
Diplomats were urged to relay to their capitals the need to stick to agreed positions and lines. The 27 leaders have been asked to not speculate on the possible extension of Article 50.
Officials noted in particular that granting more time to the UK was not as simple as some believe because the UK would have to field candidates in May’s European parliament elections if it were still a member state.
BuzzFeed News has previously reported that the feeling in Brussels and across Europe, including in France and Germany, is that the UK will eventually need to request an extension of Article 50, delaying Brexit beyond March 29.
The EU has indicated that any request would need to come from the UK – “setting out the reasons for such an extension, it will be a matter for the EU27 to decide by unanimity”.
Officials have previously told BuzzFeed News that reasons could include a few weeks or months to complete ratification, the time needed to hold a general election or a referendum, or following a significant shift in the UK’s red lines.
An extension beyond July when the new European parliament sits would be less straightforward. However, it wouldn’t be impossible, some officials say. Asked about the possibility of extending Article 50, a senior European government official said: “An extension would not be an issue”.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the ambassadors were also told that the EU would be intensifying its preparations and contingency planning for no deal. While the political chaos continues in London, European Commission officials would soon be visiting capitals to meet with relevant ministers, the note says.
Earlier in the day, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told members of the European parliament that the deal was “based on the red lines of the British government and based on the realities of leaving the EU.”
Barnier added: “The European Union wants this relationship to be as close and as ambitious as the UK red lines allow.”
He went on to say that if the UK chose to change its red lines, “then the EU would be ready to immediately support this evolution and respond favourably”.
However, the EU’s chief negotiator also warned that any agreement would need a backstop to ensure no hard border in Northern Ireland in all scenarios, as well as the integrity of the single market. “The backstop must be a backstop; it must be credible,” said Barnier.
The European Commission declined to comment.
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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