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Theresa May has finally managed to unite the Tories. Sadly, it’s against her latest Brexit fudge-making idea, to extend the transition period to 2021 allow more time to negotiate a trade pact. Another year wouldn’t be enough additional time to achieve a trade agreement unless the UK capitulated to EU terms. And a big motivation for this idea seemed to be to try to kick the Irish border can down the road.
As we’ll get to later in this post, the press has filed more detailed reports on the EU’s reactions to May’s “nothing new” speech at the European Council summit on Wednesday. The reactions seem to be more sober; recall the first takes were relief that nothing bad happened and at least everyone was trying to put their best foot forward. Nerkel also pressed Ireland and the EU to be more flexible over the Irish border question but Marcon took issue with her position. However, they both then went to a outdoor cafe and had beers for two hours.
May’s longer transition scheme vehemently criticized across Tory factions and by the DUP. Even pro-Remain Tories are opposed. The press had a field day. From the Telegraph:
Theresa May was on Thursday evening increasingly isolated over her plan to keep Britain tied to the EU for longer as she was savaged by both wings of her party and left in the cold by EU leaders…
The move enraged Brexiteers who said it would cost billions, and angered members of the Cabinet who said they had not formally agreed the plan before she offered it up as a bargaining chip. Mrs May also faced a potential mutiny from Tory MPs north of the border, including David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, who said the proposal was “unacceptable” because it would delay the UK’s exit from the hated Common Fisheries Policy.
From The Times, Revolt grows over Theresa May’s handling of Brexit talks:
Theresa May is facing the most perilous week of her premiership after infuriating all sections of her party by making further concessions to Brussels. Her offer to extend the transition period after Brexit — made without cabinet approval — enraged Remain and Leave Tory MPs alike.
And Politics Home, DUP reject moves to extend Brexit transition period in fresh blow for Theresa May Politics Home:
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds has rejected calls for the post-Brexit transition period to be extended, claiming it would cost the UK billions and not break the Irish border deadlock….
His comments came after Tory MPs on all wings of the party also rejected extending the transition period.
Former minister Nick Boles, who campaigned for Remain in the 2016 referendum, told the Today programme: “I’m afraid she’s losing the confidence now of colleagues of all shades of opinion – people who’ve been supportive of her throughout this process – they are close to despair at the state of this negotiation.”
Brexiteer MP Andrea Jenkyns tweeted: “Back in July, myself and 36 colleagues signed a letter to the Prime Minister setting out our red lines – and that was one of them. It’s completely ridiculous.”
Scottish Tories say they would veto an extension to the Brexit transition period in support of their fisherman.
And apparently the European Council didn’t take the extension idea seriously. City AM reported that European Council president Donald Tusk said it wasn’t discussed after May left.
And members of the hard-core Brexit faction are also up in arms about May conceding that an Irish border backstop can’t be time limited. From The Sun:
Theresa May has conceded the Irish backstop cannot have an end date, risking the threat of fresh Cabinet resignations. The PM told Leo Varadkar she accepted Brussels’ demands that any fallback border solution cannot be “time-limited”. …
But a fudge could cost Mrs May two eurosceptic Cabinet ministers, with Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom threatening to resign if there’s not a set end date.
Merkel pushes for more Brussels-Ireland flexibility while Macron disagrees. I am at risk of seeming unduly wedded to my priors, but Merkel’s effort at an intervention came off like a clueless CEO telling subordinates who have been handed a nearly-impossible task that they need to get more creative. While Merkel is correct to point out that no-deal = hard Irish border, an outcome no one wants, she does not appear to comprehend that the “sea border,” which is politically fraught for the UK, is the only alternative that does not create ginormous problems for the EU. Merkel’s seeming lack of comprehension may reflect the fact that EU nations don’t handle trade negotiations. From the Financial Times:
At an EU summit dinner and in later public remarks, the German chancellor expressed concerns about the bloc’s stand-off with the UK over the Irish “backstop”, a fallback measure intended to ensure no hard border divides Ireland if other solutions fail. This has become the biggest outstanding issue in the talks.
Three diplomats said that at the Wednesday night dinner Ms Merkel indicated that the EU and the Republic of Ireland should rethink their approach on Northern Ireland to avoid a fundamental clash with London.
Ms Merkel also signalled her concerns in a press conference on Thursday, highlighting that if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal a hard border for Northern Ireland could be inevitable.
“If you don’t have an agreement you don’t have a satisfactory answer [to the border issue] either,” she said, noting that on Northern Ireland “we all need an answer”….
Diplomats said the German chancellor was more forceful about the issue at the Brexit dinner, although some other leaders remained puzzled about the chancellor’s intentions.
The Financial Times also said that the UK and Germany would meet Thursday to “discuss a way out of the Brexit impasse.” Given that Barnier has offered a lot of new ideas in last month, it is hard to see how anything new could be cooked up, unless the UK hopes to sell Germany on its already-rejected techno vaporware idea.
Macron made clear he was not on the same page. Again from the Financial Times:
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, struck a more uncompromising tone. “It’s not for the EU to make some concessions to deal with a British political issue. I can’t be more clear on this,” he said. “Now the key element for a final deal is on the British side, because the key element is a British political compromise.”
Vardakar also made a statement after the dinner that reaffirmed the importance of the EU affirming the principles of the single market. From The Times:
The European Union would have “huge difficulties” in agreeing to extend the Northern Irish backstop to the rest of the UK, the taoiseach has warned. Leo Varadkar said he did not think “any country or union” would be asked to sign up to an agreement that would give the UK access to the single market while also allowing it to “undercut” the EU across a range of areas including state aid competition, labour laws and environmental standards.
“I would feel very strongly about this, as a European as well as an Irishman: you couldn’t have a situation whereby the UK had access to the single market — which is our market — and at the same time was able to undercut us in terms of standards, whether they were environmental standards, labour laws, or state aid competition. I don’t think any country or any union would be asked to accept that,” Mr Varadkar said in Brussels.
Robert Peston deems odds of crash out high; sees only escape route as “customs union Brexit”. Robert Peston, who is one of the UK’s best connected political reporters, described in a new piece at ITV how May has at best a narrow path to avoiding a disorderly Brexit, and that is what he calls a “customs union” Brexit. I am sure if Richard North saw that, he’d be tearing his hair, since he has been describing for months why a customs union does not solve the problem that virtually everyone who talks in up in UK thinks it solves, namely, conferring “frictionless trade”.
One key point in his analysis is that the UK will also have to accept “a blind Brexit,” meaning a very fuzzy statement of what the “future relationship” will be. The EU had offered that in the last month or so, presumably as a fudge to allow May to get the various wings of her coalition to agree to something. But Peston says it’s too late to do anything else. From ITV:
Hello from Brussels and the EU Council that promised a Brexit breakthrough and delivered nothing.
So on the basis of conversations with well-placed sources, this is how I think the Brexit talks are placed (WARNING: if you are fearful of a no-deal Brexit, or are of a nervous disposition, stop reading now):
1) Forget about having any clue when we leave about the nature and structure of the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU. The government heads of the EU27 have rejected Chequers. Wholesale. And they regard it as far too late to put in place the building blocks of that future relationship before we leave on 29 March 2019. So any Political Declaration on the future relationship will be waffly, vague and general. It will be what so many MPs detest: a blind Brexit. The PM may say that won’t happen. No one here (except perhaps her own Downing St team) believes her.
Erm, that alone may be a deal killer. We quoted this section of a Politico article on October 10:
5. Future relationship – Blind Brexit
Opposed: Brexiteers, Tory Remainers, the Labour Party, Theresa May
I’ll let our astute readers give their reactions to Peston’s recommendation to May:
3) …There is no chance of the EU abandoning its insistence that there should be a backstop – with no expiry date – of Northern Ireland, but not Great Britain, remaining in the Customs Union and the single market. That would involve the introduction of the commercial border in the Irish Sea that May says must never be drawn.
4) All efforts therefore from the UK are aimed at putting in place other arrangements to make it impossible for that backstop to be introduced.
5) Her ruse for doing this is the creation of another backstop that would involve the whole of the UK staying in something that looks like the customs union.
6) But she feels cannot commit to keeping the UK in the customs union forever, because her Brexiter MPs won’t let her. So it does not work as a backstop. And anyway the Article 50 rules say that the Withdrawal Agreement must not contain provisions for a permanent trading relationship between the whole of the UK and the EU. Which is a hideous Catch 22.
7) There is a solution. She could ignore her Brexiter critics and announce the UK wanted written into the Political Declaration – not the Withdrawal Agreement – that we would be staying permanently in the customs union. This is one bit of specificity the rest of the EU would allow into the Political Declaration. And it could be nodded at in the Withdrawal Agreement.
8) But if she announces we are staying in the Customs Union she would be crossing her reddest of red lines because she would have to abandon her ambition of negotiating free trade deals with non-EU countries. Liam Fox would be made redundant.
9) She knows, because her Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins has told her, that her best chance – probably her only chance of securing a Brexit deal – is to sign up for the customs union.
10) In its absence, no-deal Brexit is massively in play.
11) But a customs-union Brexit deal would see her Brexiter MPs become incandescent with fury.
12) Labour of course would be on the spot, since its one practical Brexit policy is to stay in the Customs Union.
13) This therefore is May’s Robert Peel moment. She could agree a Customs Union Brexit and get it through Parliament with Labour support – while simultaneously cleaving her own party in two.
Finally, in an elegiac piece, Richard North contends that the UK didn’t need to wind up where it is:
A reader takes me to task for making comparisons between the Brexit negotiations and the Allied invasion of Normandy…
Yet it is precisely because Mrs May seems to have chosen an adversarial route rather than a consensual process that I have projected her failings in militaristic terms..
In reality, it would have been best to approach the Brexit process not so much as the end of a relationship as a redefinition, where the need to continue close cooperation continues, even if it is to be structured on a different basis…
Here, though, lies the essential problem. The EU, as a treaty-based organisation, does not have the flexibility to change its own rules just to suit the needs of one member, and especially one which is seeking to leave the Union. Yet, on the other hand, the UK government has political constraints which prevent it making concessions which would allow the EU to define a new relationship…
But, having put herself in a position where she is demanding something that the EU cannot give, she herself has no alternative but to adopt an adversarial stance – if for no other reason than to show her own political allies and critics that she is doing her best to resolve an impossible situation.
If there is a light at the end of this tunnel, it sure looks like the headlight of an oncoming train, the Brexit end date bearing down on the principals.