BERLIN — Germany will not agree to further delaying Brexit without a clear perspective on how to proceed, multiple diplomats and government officials have told BuzzFeed News.
Some of the diplomats and officials said that an extension to article 50 — the framework that set out the two-year window for the UK’s departure from the EU — can only be considered if Britain’s prime minister asks for an extension and does so with a clear plan outlining next steps, such as holding a general election.
An extension will not be contemplated “just for the sake of it”, one of the diplomats said.
The UK has twice asked for the Brexit deadline to be pushed back from the original March 29 date, with its departure from the EU now due on Oct. 31. Should Boris Johnson fail to reach an agreement with EU leaders at next month’s European Council summit, Parliament has voted to compel the prime minister to ask for another extension.
However, pointing to the unpredictable and chaotic state in UK politics of late, officials in Berlin caution against taking an extension for granted despite British MPs having passed legislation to avoid no-deal.
In addition to requiring a clear electoral purpose, the officials stressed that the request for an extension would need to come from the UK government. Johnson has repeatedly told EU leaders that he is determined for Brexit to happen at the end of next month come what may, with or without a deal, and that he will not ask for an extension.
When EU leaders last met in April to discuss the current extension, the 27 were divided between majority who favoured a long delay to avoid a no-deal and a smaller group, led by French president Emmanuel Macron, who pushed instead for a short extension to force the UK into choosing between the agreement negotiated by Theresa May and leaving the bloc without a deal.
Although preventing Britain from crashing out of the EU remains high on Berlin’s list of priorities, the mood in the German capital and elsewhere in Europe has hardened in recent months. “We will never say we are bored with tedious Brexit,” a German diplomat said, adding, however, that the last six months had not brought as much clarity as hoped. “We will not say: ‘more time will solve it’.”
Johnson has privately assured his European counterparts that he will present concrete proposals ahead of the EU council meeting in Brussels on Oct. 17. But the bloc’s leaders are still waiting to see these.
The UK has so far shared four documents with the EU, covering food and agriculture as well as sanitary and phytosanitary measures (known as SPS), customs, and manufactured goods. The papers set out Britain’s initial thinking on how to get around the issue of the so-called backstop, the insurance policy included in the withdrawal agreement that guarantees that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland remains open after Brexit in all circumstances and scenarios, while also protecting the integrity of the EU’s single market.
EU officials have described the documents as “concepts” that are “not detailed”. The UK has labelled the papers “HMG property,” and asked for them not to be forwarded on to member states.
A German diplomat told BuzzFeed News that their understanding was that the proposals were “incomplete”.
The diplomat said: “They are a start, but nowhere near where you can see the structure of an agreement that replicates the tasks of the backstop and is legally operative from day one.”
A government official said they expected Johnson to send something more thorough after the Conservative party conference ends on Wednesday and as close to next month’s summit as he can get away with. However, the same official warned that member states would need time to analyse and — most probably — work further on any proposals.
The discussion over delaying Brexit will ultimately be a political decision for the 27 leaders alone. Until the full extent of Britain's position is completely clear, the debate on the terms of the UK's extension is somewhat of an academic question. "Keeping the 27 together and united will be the number one priority," the official said.
The UK effectively has about 10 days to unlock the stalemate. At a briefing to the ambassadors of the EU’s 27 member states on Thursday, diplomats were told by senior EU officials that there would be no all-night negotiations on a legal text month’s summit, quashing a belief that has long circulated in parts of the UK press of a last-minute deal.
A government official said Berlin was fully aligned with the stance. “It is not a negotiating tactic. It just wouldn’t make sense,” the official told BuzzFeed News.
The hope in Berlin and elsewhere is that Johnson moves towards a Northern Ireland–only backstop, which would effectively maintain the status quo in Northern Ireland by keeping it in the single market and customs union until an alternative arrangement could be found that would avoid a hard border.
This option, which would allow the rest of the UK to diverge from the EU’s regulatory regime and standards, was first proposed by the EU some two years ago. The bloc has consistently said that it remains on the table.
Such a pivot seems distant at this stage. Echoing views expressed multiple times in recent weeks by the European Commission, a diplomat noted that the UK and the EU were “nowhere near” reaching a deal ahead of when EU leaders meet in Brussels.
The EU and the 27 governments have consistently been clear that any alternatives would need to meet all the requirements of the backstop and would have to be legally operative.
Asked whether the leaders might compromise on the objectives of the backstop in order to get an agreement with the clock ticking down, all the officials and diplomats BuzzFeed News spoke to said the 27 governments wouldn’t do that. Any solution “has to check every box on substance,” said an official, adding that the EU “would not cut corners.”
“It cannot be 70/30 integrity of the single market,” the official said. “Once a cow crosses the border, it’s in the single market”.
This story has been updated to remove a reference to a statement that the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, is expected to issue.