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As Brexit Deadline Nears, EU Loses Confidence in May

Posted by hkarner - 14. Februar 2019

Date: 13-02-2019
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Brussels wonders whether U.K. prime minister can deliver any Brexit deal

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May departs number 10 Downing Street on Wednesday.

Six weeks from Britain’s planned exit from the European Union, the bloc’s governments are preparing to make further concessions to try to help British Prime Minister Theresa May win approval for her Brexit deal in Parliament.

But as the clock ticks down, they are still waiting for a signal from Mrs. May about how to move and are losing confidence in her capacity to deliver a majority for any agreement, increasing the chances of a no-deal exit that neither side wants.

One thing European officials say is now certain, although the British side hasn’t admitted it: If there is a deal, the U.K.’s scheduled departure on March 29 will have to be delayed.

Mrs. May is seeking legal guarantees that an arrangement aimed at avoiding the emergence of a physical border in Ireland—ironically a concession by Brussels extracted by British negotiators—won’t be used to trap the U.K. permanently into a customs union with the EU, denying Britain an independent trade policy.
That so-called Irish backstop was a central reason why the withdrawal agreement Mrs. May negotiated in November was defeated last month by more than 200 votes in the House of Commons.

Brussels now feels like a town in a phony war. Senior officials who have spent much of the last two years in negotiations are waiting, unable to influence the debate in London and unwilling to put ideas on the table for a solution they believe must come from London.

EU officials say they can’t move unless Mrs. May explains how she wants the deal amended and demonstrates she can swing a majority of lawmakers behind it. “It’s not up to us to construct a Commons majority,” says one.

But they are starting to worry that, even if they do make further concessions, she still may not be able to drive the deal through her deeply divided legislature.

“We have a trust issue here about capacity, not intentions,” says a senior EU official.

Mrs. May has been out to Brussels and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay was in Brussels and Strasbourg this week for talks with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and senior EU lawmakers. Privately, EU officials say they heard nothing that gave them more clarity about what concessions Mrs. May intends to seek.

The best-case scenario now, according to British and EU officials, is that a compromise comes together in late March, possibly at a scheduled EU summit on March 21 and 22. European officials are now working on the assumption that unless Britain exits on March 29 with no agreement, there will be a minimum three-month delay to Brexit.

EU officials have repeatedly said in public that reopening the Nov. 25 agreement to amend the backstop is a no-go. Yet privately, in Brussels and beyond, European officials say leaders may eventually accept some additions or attachments to the withdrawal agreement if Mrs. May convinces them Parliament would pass a deal.

British officials have pointed to the economic downturn in Germany that a no-deal Brexit would make worse, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent call for creativity in search for solutions as signs that the EU’s biggest economy is preparing for a last-minute cave on the backstop that would allow the British, for example, to pull out of it unilaterally.

Yet according to a raft of European officials from across the bloc, this is a misreading of the situation. No deal would be bad for all but the EU has said they won’t throw Ireland under the bus.

Speaking to reporters in Strasbourg on Tuesday, Mr. Barclay signaled the minimum of what Mrs. May is aiming for: sufficient guarantees about the temporary nature of the backstop for British attorney general Geoffrey Cox to draw the legal conclusion that the U.K. couldn’t be held in it indefinitely against its will.

Written assurances from top EU officials that the backstop is a last resort and that they have no intention of trapping Britain permanently in the arrangement has so far proved insufficient.

Providing those guarantees in the agreement could, British officials believe, convince all but a hard core of 20-30 pro-Brexit lawmakers to back the withdrawal deal. Labour lawmakers in pro-Brexit constituencies would then help Mrs. May win a parliamentary majority.

This can’t be taken for granted though, and an almost accidental British exit without a deal remains possible despite this being a worst-case scenario for businesses.

If an amended deal passes, EU decision makers appear willing to delay Britain’s departure day for up to three months to allow the U.K. Parliament time to pass the necessary legislation. If it fails amid political chaos, officials in Brussels, Paris and Berlin could be open to granting an extension for nine or 12 months.

However, EU officials say that the two main EU legal services are in agreement that a nine-month extension would create a new wrinkle. It would require the U.K. to hold elections to make sure that the British public is represented when a new European Parliament sits for the first time on July 2, when the U.K. would still be inside the bloc. A decision to extend must be agreed unanimously by all 27 EU governments.

For the EU and Britain’s main political parties, such elections could be a nightmare in which politicians rerun the 2016 referendum campaign and inject further division and turmoil into U.K. and EU politics.

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