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How Brussels should respond to Britain’s confused demands

Posted by hkarner - 2. Februar 2019

Date: 31-01-2019
Source: The Economist

Brexit is a problem that only Britain can fix—but the EU must give it the time to do so

Theresa may has become so used to losing votes in the House of Commons that when, on January 29th, the prime minister got mps to back her on a motion regarding her Brexit deal, it was treated as a breakthrough. “She did it!” announced one front page the next morning. Another hailed “Theresa’s triumph”.

Alas, it is anything but. mps agreed that they would support the exit deal she has agreed to with the European Union, so long as the Irish “backstop” was removed (see article). But on the crucial question of what might replace it—something that negotiators in Brussels have spent almost two years scratching their heads over—the motion suggested no more than unspecified “alternative arrangements”. Mrs May vowed to take this vague demand to have her cake and eat it back to Brussels.

She will get short shrift, and she deserves it. A sensible approach to the Brexit talks would have been to agree at home on what kind of deal to go for, then begin negotiations. The prime minister did the opposite, talking to the eu for nearly two years before coming back to find that her treaty could not pass her own Parliament. With less than two months before Brexit day, she now proposes to reopen negotiations on what she herself recently insisted was “the only possible deal”.
It is abject. But any exasperated European leaders who are keen for Britain to just go, deal or no deal, should think again. A chaotic exit with no withdrawal agreement would represent a colossal failure by both sides. The eu cannot solve Westminster’s tumultuous politics, let alone the contradictions within the Brexit project. But one thing Britain urgently needs in order to sort out its mess is time—and that is where the eu can help.

Those Brexiteers urging the eu to make “concessions” on the Irish backstop misunderstand its purpose. Britain wants an independent trade policy, an invisible border with Ireland and no customs checks between Northern Ireland and the British mainland. These three aims are incompatible. If Britain sets its own tariffs, it will mean customs checks on goods passing between it and the eu, of which Ireland is a member. That means inspections at the border. Britain believes that in future it will be possible to do such checks remotely, perhaps using new technology. One day that may be true. Until then, an interim solution is needed. This is the backstop, under which Britain would remain in a customs union with the eu, keeping both borders open but delaying its ability to strike trade deals.

The backstop thus exists as a logical consequence of Britain’s own negotiating objectives, not European caprice. By definition, it expires when someone comes up with a way to carry out customs checks with no border infrastructure. Hardline Brexiteers’ calls for the backstop to be time-limited are thus not just unrealistic but nonsensical. Beyond more words of reassurance about the arrangement’s temporary nature—which it should ladle on liberally—the eu cannot do much about the backstop.

Where it can make a difference is on the timing. Unless Parliament agrees on a deal by March 29th, Britain will fall out of the eu without any exit arrangements in place. Britain itself would suffer most from this. But for the eu, and especially Ireland, it would also be horribly damaging to lose one of its most important members in such circumstances. Parliament this week made clear that it was against leaving with no deal. If Mrs May wants to avoid this fate, she will surely have to ask for more time. The eu should signal that it will agree to her request.

The longer Britain has to sort out its mess, the more chance that it can avoid disaster. Mrs May’s strategy has been to get the hardline Brexiteers in her Conservative Party to back the deal. The vote this week for the cake-based motion, which more or less united Conservative mps, has helped feed the idea that this is still possible. But the response from Brussels ought to put paid to that thinking. In reality, Mrs May is likely to have more luck winning votes from the opposition. The price of Labour’s support seems to be a permanent customs union. The backstop, as Brexiteers complain, already amounts to something close to this. It is possible to imagine a deal being done, but not in the two months remaining. With more time, Parliament may yet feel its way to a solution. Brexit is a British problem that only Britain can fix. But the eu can give it the time it needs—and it must.

Date: 31-01-2019
Source: The Economist
Subject: Theresa May’s temporary triumph

The prime minister wins parliamentary support to renegotiate the Brexit deal. Yet she is unlikely to secure any substantive changes

It has been a rare good week for Theresa May. In a series of votes on January 29th she secured backing from almost all her Conservative mps and her Northern Irish Democratic Unionist allies for a motion asking her to go to Brussels to seek changes to her Brexit deal. She also defeated two amendments that could have seen Parliament seize control of the Brexit process. She comprehensively out-debated the Labour Party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and even got him to drop his refusal to talk to her about how to get a new Brexit deal through the House of Commons, which resoundingly rejected the first version two weeks ago.

Two developments underlay her success. The first was an amendment by Sir Graham Brady, a leading Tory backbencher, that backed her Brexit deal so long as the much-disliked Irish “backstop”, an insurance policy to avert a hard border in Ireland by keeping the United Kingdom in a customs union with the European Union, is replaced by what it coyly called “alternative arrangements”. The second was a plan hatched by Tories from both the Remain and Leave wings of the party, dubbed the Malthouse compromise after the junior minister who dreamt it up, for a different backstop and for a longer transition period even if no withdrawal agreement is ratified. Although the Malthouse compromise seems unrealistic and Sir Graham’s plan lacks specifics, the combination was enough for the Brady amendment to win by 317 votes to 301.

A third crucial element was Mrs May’s promise to allow mps another lot of votes on Brexit on February 14th. This was enough to head off (for now) amendments by Yvette Cooper, a Labour mp, and Dominic Grieve, a Tory, to rip up normal parliamentary procedure and pass their own bills designed to stop a no-deal Brexit and explore other options instead. Twenty-five Labour mps defied their party whip to sink the Cooper amendment; they may yet come round to backing a revised deal. For Mrs May, the only fly in the ointment was the passage of another amendment, from Dame Caroline Spelman, a Tory, to reject a no-deal Brexit; but this has no legal force.

The prime minister’s triumph will prove short-lived, however. Even as the Brady amendment was being voted through, the eu was insisting that the Brexit withdrawal agreement, which includes the Irish backstop, would not be reopened. eu leaders are exasperated that Mrs May now supports a plan that jettisons a central part of the deal which she had previously insisted was the only one available.

Brussels is the more unwilling to reopen negotiations because Mrs May still refuses to change any of her negotiating red lines. As Kenneth Clarke, a veteran Tory mp, pointed out, the logical outcome now would be a permanent customs union with regulatory alignment, but Mrs May still rules this out. Moreover, if the withdrawal agreement were reopened, the eu thinks other issues such as fisheries, the budget or Gibraltar would be raised by leaders who believe they have already given Britain too many concessions. And the European Parliament, whose assent is needed for any deal, might well reject a deal that radically alters the current one.

Above all, the eu is not prepared to throw Ireland, which insists on keeping the backstop in order to avoid a hard border, under the bus. The interests of a member come above those of a leaver. It argues that the backstop is an inevitable outcome of Britain’s desire to leave the customs union and single market. Stopping a hard border is also seen as vital to protect the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian “Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

Claims that some untried new technology can avoid all checks and controls on the Irish border are still viewed in Brussels as magical thinking. Indeed, Brexiteers’ insistence on removing the backstop is treated as evidence of doubts that their own magic would work. The repeated lurches in Britain’s approaches to Brexit seem only to strengthen the case for keeping the backstop as an insurance policy.

Tick, tock
This does not mean that the eu will do nothing to help Mrs May. It has already offered clarifications to make clear that it does not want the backstop to be used and that, if it were, it would be only temporary. These could be given greater legal force, perhaps through an interpretative declaration or a codicil, or even tweaks to the wording of the withdrawal agreement itself. And Brussels is already hinting that, if more time is needed beyond March 29th, the date set for Brexit, it is ready to entertain the notion.

With less than two months left, it is increasingly clear that more time will indeed be necessary. Parliament must pass a detailed withdrawal act as well as other big pieces of legislation and hundreds of statutory instruments before Brexit can happen. Only limited progress has been made in rolling over existing eu free-trade agreements that Britain will lose on its departure. Yet when Mrs May was repeatedly asked in the Commons by Ms Cooper if she would seek the eu’s agreement to push back the deadline, she refused to answer.

This plays into the other big concern of the week, which is the growing risk of a Brexit with no deal at all. The response of British business to the Commons votes was glum. The failure of Ms Cooper’s amendment means that leaving with no deal is still on the table as the default option, even if a majority of mps have voted not to support it. Sabine Weyand, deputy to Michel Barnier, the eu’s Brexit negotiator, declared this week that the risk of no deal was now very high.

The markets seem more sanguine. The pound has risen in value since Mrs May’s deal was rejected by mps. But many analysts think traders are underestimating the chances of a no-deal Brexit. Paul Hardy, Brexit director at dla Piper, a law firm, reckons the eu is better prepared for no deal than Britain. He adds, however, that a big concern in Brussels will be to avoid the blame should a no-deal Brexit transpire.

It is this potential game of blame-shifting that makes the chance of no deal so worrying. Several Tory mps and even some cabinet ministers have said they would fight any deliberate decision to go for a no-deal Brexit, if need be by resigning the party whip. eu leaders, too, will do whatever they can to avoid such an outcome, which would seriously damage not just Britain but the entire eu, and most notably Ireland. But if the clock runs down and both sides start blaming each other for being too intransigent, no deal could still happen by accident. To prevent it may take defter diplomacy and greater flexibility than either Mrs May or the eu has shown during the past two years.

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