Publicly, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has cautiously welcomed a UK government paper agreed by ministers after a Cabinet away day on Friday, setting out Theresa May’s proposals for the future UK–EU relationship.
But, privately, the 27 EU leaders have already been informed by Brussels that May’s plans would cross red lines the leaders set out in the EU’s negotiating position, BuzzFeed News can reveal.
The EU27’s initial assessment, the details of which have been seen by BuzzFeed News, is that proposals included in the paper – such as remaining in the single market for goods without the single market’s other freedoms (people, services, and capital), and a clear legal oversight mechanism – are unacceptable.
Brussels also feels that May’s new customs proposal, which would see Britain collect duties on behalf of the EU, looks a lot like the customs partnership they have already rejected, according to the assessment.
A pledge by the UK to not let standards on the environment, climate change, social, employment, and consumer protection fall below their current levels, is welcome by Brussels, but EU capitals have been warned that it requires further detailed assessment.
After a 12-hour meeting on Friday at Chequers, the prime minister’s official country residence, UK ministers agreed to sign up to a plan to create a free trade area based on a "common rule book". They also supported the phased introduction of “a new Facilitated Customs Arrangement” that would see the creation of a combined customs territory between the UK and the EU.
The proposals amount to a significant softening of how the government envisions Brexit. Downing Street said the proposals marked a "substantial evolution" in the UK's position, according to the BBC.
The UK shared the plans with EU capitals about 40 minutes before they were made public.
It is understood that the EU’s concerns will not be immediately aired publicly. A source who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity said the question for the 27 leaders was not whether to shoot down May’s proposals, but when.
EU leaders have yet to agree when that time will come.
On Twitter, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney echoed the cautious public welcome for the UK document, which he said "needs and deserves detailed consideration".
To reach a final deal on the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU, including a two-year transition, the UK will need to agree to a backstop solution that avoids a hard border in Northern Ireland in all scenarios, and regardless of the future UK–EU relationship. On the future relationship, the UK and the EU27 need only a political declaration which sets the direction of travel but leaves detailed terms to be negotiated after March.
The government document published on Friday night is not clear whether the UK has agreed to the EU’s version of the backstop, which would see Northern Ireland retain aspects of the single market and the customs union until other workable solutions are in place, or whether May is sticking to her position that any backstop must be UK-wide. The EU has already rejected the latter because it would open a backdoor for the UK to partially remain in the single market.
An EU government source told BuzzFeed News before the plans were published that their “feeling is the UK wants to get to March without too many commitments on the future relationship agreed before leaving. May will say ‘we’ve left, now we need to make concessions,’” the official said.
However, another source said that they don’t think that fudging it all the way to March could be done, because other capitals are likely to oppose to such an approach in light of May’s latest plan.
A third source told BuzzFeed News that there had been quite a bit of movement on the UK side, and the proposals could represent a starting point for the talks. They noted, however, that an agreement was needed by late October.
The European Commission declined to comment.