The European Union thinks the UK is now facing a binary choice between no deal and a long delay to Brexit, according to a diplomatic note seen by BuzzFeed News.
The note is of a briefing made to the ambassadors of the EU’s remaining 27 member states on Thursday following yesterday’s indicative votes in the House of Commons, which saw MPs reject eight rival Brexit plans.
On Friday, Theresa May will attempt again to get MPs to back the withdrawal agreement when she brings it back to the House of Commons for the third time. But this time they will not vote on the other part of the deal she agreed with the EU — the political declaration, which is the framework that outlines the future relationship.
But May’s chances of success are low as she has failed to secure the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, many Brexiteer Tory MPs remain opposed, and Labour has said it won’t back what it calls a “blind Brexit”.
In a sign that Brussels and Europe’s capitals are highly sceptical of her odds of getting the Brexit deal through Parliament, much of Thursday’s meeting was dedicated to no-deal planning and preparing a common opening position ahead of a meeting of EU leaders expected to take place next month.
Should there be a no-deal, the EU would set the UK three preconditions to enter trade talks the note states:
Ensuring that Britain abides by its financial commitments — the so-called Brexit bill part of the agreement;
Guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in the UK as well as of Britons working and residing elsewhere in the EU;
Finding a solution that keeps open the border in Northern Ireland along the lines of the arrangement in the withdrawal agreement, meaning the backstop — the insurance policy that ensures that the border in Ireland remains open under all circumstances.
In effect, Britain would be asked to sign up to terms very similar to those contained in the Brexit agreement. The European Commission warned the ambassadors from the member states against entering bilateral sectoral negotiations with the UK.
The 27 diplomats were also told that either option — a no-deal or a long extension — would come with political and economical costs for the bloc. A long extension would see the UK continue to participate in the EU’s decision-making processes, including discussions relevant to the union’s budget, while a no-deal would likely see the need arise for financial assistance made available to those member states and sectors hardest hit by a no-deal Brexit.
The decision on whether to delay Brexit further, should the UK ask for another extension, will ultimately be one for EU leaders.
At a European Council meeting of EU leaders last week, the 27 heads of state and government agreed to extend Article 50 — the framework that sets out the two-year process for the UK’s departure from the EU that was due to end this Friday — until May 22 if MPs approve the deal this week. If they don’t, the UK has until April 12 to put forward a plan or face crashing out without a deal.
The UK government announced on Thursday that it would be putting only the withdrawal agreement, the legally binding terms of departure, to MPs on Friday.
Asked about the decision to split the exit package in two, a senior EU official told BuzzFeed News that “only the withdrawal agreement is a must-have for the orderly withdrawal. The political declaration is a nice to have.”
However, EU and European government officials are adamant that if the deal doesn’t go through, and the UK asks for a longer extension before the April deadline, Britain will have to hold European Parliament elections in May.
April 11 is the date by which the UK has to organise these elections.
Four senior sources told BuzzFeed News on Thursday that this position would not change.
“It is indispensable,” said a senior EU official. Another official said it was “nearly impossible” that the 27 leaders would alter their view on this.
An official from a major European government told BuzzFeed News that the feeling in Brussels last week was that the legitimacy of the European Parliament elections could not be put in jeopardy.
“A member state is either in or out and while it is in, it has a member’s rights and obligations with participation in the election being one of the obligations,” said the official.
“This position still stands,” they added.
An EU27 leader said that if MPs were to vote against holding the EU elections, it would definitively shut the door on a long extension.
The 27 leaders are expected to meet on April 10 to decide between no deal and a longer extension, the diplomatic note says. The expectation is that a longer extension, which could be granted to hold a general election or a referendum, would be a “simpler” decision to reach than more “complex” no-deal conclusions, the note adds.
The ambassadors were told that the EU and the member states were “well prepared” for no deal, but noted that specific files, such as the certification of medical devices and visas, still had to be finalised. The visa file is particularly important, “as without it, UK nationals would need a visa to travel to the EU,” the note read.
Ahead of Friday’s vote, May was scrambling to win the support of the DUP and hardline Tory backbenchers, as well as that of a sufficient number of Labour MPs in Leave constituencies.
The DUP has so far not budged in its opposition to the deal, and some 25 Tory MPs, including former Brexit secretary and likely Tory leadership contender Dominic Raab, are said to be against the agreement no matter what. Raab told reporters on Thursday morning that the prime minister should go back to Brussels to seek legally binding changes to the backstop or prepare for no deal.
The EU has repeatedly said that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, cannot be reopened. Asked about Raab’s remarks, an EU official said: “Oh for fuck sake.”