The European Union showed the first signs last night that it could blink in its standoff with Theresa May on her Brexit deal.
Leaders across the Continent greeted the Prime Minister’s demand to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement with a united chorus of ‘No’ yesterday.
But diplomats in Brussels admitted the rebuff was part of a ‘cold shower’ strategy designed to put pressure on Mrs May before it considers giving ground at the 11th hour.
In a glimmer of hope for No10, the Polish prime minister urged his counterparts to strive to avoid a No Deal Brexit.
Poland’s PM Mateusz Morawiecki – pictured with Theresa May last year – has urged EU leaders to avoid a no-deal exit in a glimmer of hope for Number 10’s efforts to rewrite the exit deal
Angela Merkel’s coalition partners in Germany criticised the immediate rejection by Brussels of Mrs May’s request, warning ‘stubbornness is not European’.
EU sources said that behind the scenes a small group of member states was pushing for the Prime Minister to be given the time limit she wants on the Northern Ireland backstop to prevent a hard border with Ireland.
Meanwhile, a senior diplomatic source predicted the EU would make concessions if Britain stuck to its guns.
‘Everything we hear suggests that EU capitals want to do a deal,’ the source said. ‘If the UK holds its nerve they will give way. Where else have they got to go?’
However, sources warned that talks would go down to the wire with no significant changes offered before the next planned Commons vote on the deal on February 14.
On another dramatic day:
- Mrs May delayed her dash to Brussels until next week to give the EU more time to absorb the impact of Tuesday night’s vote;
- A row broke out over the UK’s £39billion Brexit divorce bill, with one minister suggesting the EU wouldn’t get a penny without compromise;
- It emerged that British negotiators were examining a string of options to change the deal, including a time-limited backstop or a ‘MaxFac’ style solution;
- The fragile Tory Brexit truce was broken by a row over who should negotiate with Brussels;
- Mrs May told MPs their vote against No Deal was not sufficient to kill off the prospect;
- A poll for the Daily Mail found that Mrs May will command clear public support for her attempt to win a new Brexit deal if the EU agrees to compromise;
- Downing Street privately dismissed the idea of a customs union with the EU as a possible route to removing the backstop;
- Jeremy Corbyn met Mrs May for talks on Brexit after his humiliating U-turn over the issue;
- Labour was plunged into civil war yesterday as Mr Corbyn’s supporters went on the attack against the party’s Brexit rebels;
- An NHS chief executive said hospitals could ‘quickly run out of vital medicine’ in the event of No Deal, while car industry chiefs said they were on red alert.
Yesterday, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker rejected the call by MPs for the Brexit deal to be renegotiated.
‘The withdrawal agreement remains the best and only deal possible,’ he told MEPs in Brussels. ‘The debate and votes in the House of Commons yesterday do not change that.
‘The withdrawal agreement will not be renegotiated.’
Theresa May, pictured in the House of Commons yesterday, is battling to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement after MPs called for changes to the backstop
May’s choices… and chances of getting them
Theresa May is expected to travel to Brussels within days to demand an alternative to the Northern Ireland backstop. Associate Editor JACK DOYLE examines what she can ask for, what the EU might accept and what will satisfy Brexit hardliners.
What is it? Seeks to use technology to carry out customs and regulatory checks on trade across the Northern Ireland border the EU insists are necessary. These solutions could include cameras, ‘trusted trader’ schemes, electronic clearance and other streamlined checks.
Can she get it? This was put on the table during the talks but dismissed by the EU as ‘magical thinking’ or a ‘unicorn’ solution (because it doesn’t exist).
Will it win over arch Brexiteers? Yes. This is the solution which fell by the wayside at Chequers when Mrs May accepted the backstop.
What is it? The backstop would remain in its current form but would expire after a time limit was reached.
Can she get it? Very difficult. The whole point of the backstop is that it is a fall-back position to protect the open border and which comes into force only if a trade deal cannot be agreed. What happens after the time limit expires?
Will it win over arch Brexiteers? Very likely – as long as it isn’t too long. Putting a limit makes it harder for the EU to use it as leverage in trade talks.
Unilateral Exit Clause
What is it? An exit clause from the backstop, which the UK could activate. The great fear of Brexiteers is the UK becomes stuck in the backstop and cannot ‘escape’ from the EU.
Can she get it? Again, a tough ask. For the past two years, the EU has insisted that the backstop must be ‘all weather’, to preserve the open border.
Will it win over arch Brexiteers? Probably. If we can walk away, the backstop ceases to become a concern.
A ‘Stormont Lock’
What is it? Devolving control of the border to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Can she get it? Would be resisted very firmly by Ireland. Also runs up against the very real problem that there is currently no Stormont Assembly in place.
Will it win over arch Brexiteers? It could win back the DUP and, if they are on board, some Brexiteers will follow.
In Berlin, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said: ‘Opening up the withdrawal agreement is not on the agenda.’
However, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki revealed he had telephoned Mrs Merkel to call for everything to be done to ‘strive to prevent a hard Brexit’.
Alexander Dobrindt, from the CSU, Mrs Merkel’s coalition partners, denounced the brusque rejection of Mrs May’s call to re-open negotiations in Brussels, and called for a flexible response.
German newspaper Die Welt said Brussels had ordered all EU governments to declare publicly that the Brexit deal could not be renegotiated. But it said some nations were already secretly discussing what concessions on the backstop could eventually be given.
Detlef Seif, from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, claimed the ‘knee-jerk rejection of new negotiations’ was ‘irresponsible’, adding: ‘There is too much at risk.’
The Financial Times reported Mr Seif had said the Commons vote clarified Britain’s negotiating position, and called for an extension of the divorce process until the end of 2020. The European Community Shipowners’ Associations warned both sides that compromise was needed, adding: ‘We call upon EU and UK authorities to be constructive and do their utmost to ensure the withdrawal agreement can be agreed to. If not, there will only be losers at all sides.’
Government sources said Mrs May had delayed going to Brussels until next week, partly to allow time for more consultation on Britain’s approach and partly so that EU leaders can use the weekend to consider how failing to compromise could lead to a No Deal that would hurt their own economies.
She will instead hold talks with factions of MPs promoting different ideas. This will include talks with MPs behind the so-called Malthouse Compromise – a deal struck between Brexiteers and Remainers that would see the UK pay an extra £10billion to extend the transition period for a year.
The proposal would also replace the Irish backstop with technological solutions and leave open the possibility of a Brexit on World Trade Organisation terms after the transition period if a free-trade deal has not been struck.
The idea has been backed by leading Remainers Nicky Morgan, Robert Buckland and Stephen Hammond, as well as Eurosceptics Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker. But it has divided Remain MPs, with one leading figure claiming Mrs Morgan had ‘lost her mind’.
Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng suggested Britain could withhold part of its divorce bill to force a compromise, insisting Brussels should not get a ‘penny pinch’ without ‘some give’ on the Irish border backstop. But the European Commission insisted the UK must honour all commitments, even in a No Deal scenario.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, pictured in Brussels yesterday, rejected the call by MPs for the Brexit deal to be renegotiated
Yesterday, Mrs May insisted she would not sell out Britain’s fishing industry or abandon Gibraltar, despite EU warnings that these issues will go back on the table if the Brexit deal is reopened.
Publicly, EU figures were clear that there could not be substantive changes to the Brexit deal.
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ruled out re-opening talks to make changes to the backstop, adding: ‘I don’t believe such alternative arrangements exist.’
His foreign minister, Simon Coveney, added: ‘What we are being asked to do here is to compromise on a solution that works, and to replace it with wishful thinking.’
Melania Ciot, the Europe minister of Romania, which holds the six-month presidency of the EU’s Council, said ‘clarifications’ of the withdrawal agreement were possible, but not renegotiation.
Tory MEP Ashley Fox said unless the backstop was axed there would be no agreement, leading to No Deal and a hard border with Ireland. He added: ‘The backstop in its current form will not prevent a hard border. It will create it.’
ALEX BRUMMER: Why the EU always haggles like an aggressive market trader… then CAVES IN
Long before the British people voted to leave the EU in the referendum, before the term Brexit had even been coined, it was Grexit that was preoccupying the minds of Eurocrats.
Greece came close to crashing out of the single currency on at least four occasions after a vast black hole opened up in the country’s accounts in 2009.
At one stage, in 2012, the British banknote printers De La Rue was asked by the government in Athens to make contingency plans to print new drachma notes (Greece’s pre-euro currency) in preparation for what many called the ‘Double D’ solution to Greek economic problems – default on the country’s debt and devaluation with the return of the drachma.
Today, Greece remains one of the 17 members of the eurozone – and that fact alone should lift Theresa May’s spirits as, armed with her newly acquired parliamentary majority, she returns to Brussels seeking at the very least to put a time limit on the backstop deal she signed up to for the Irish border.
Each time a Greek default loomed into view, threatening the stability of the eurozone and raising the possibility that Italy or one of the other member countries might also head for the exit, the main protagonists – the hard-line German-dominated European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt and the European Commission in Brussels – caved in and authorised a bailout.
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker (left) and the European Chief Negotiator for the United Kingdom Exiting the European Union Michel Barnier (right)
Last-ditch negotiations, usually conducted over a weekend when the financial markets were closed, would typically stretch into the early hours.
Late-night deals were hatched against a backdrop of TV screens showing central Athens on fire and anti-austerity protesters ripping up flagstones in the capital’s Syntagma Square.
The first £38billion bailout was agreed in the dead of night on April 23, 2010, by the troika of the ECB, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. It was one of several rescue packages for Greece, some of which required a change of government to get them over the line.
What happened to Greece is typical of the Eurocrat tendency to fudge, to muddy the waters and eventually to seek compromise in a crisis situation.
Indeed, the history of the EU is littered with examples of Britain locked into eleventh-hour talks with eurocrats as the UK has sought changes in our terms of membership.
John Major worked through the night in 1991 to secure Britain’s opt-out from the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty which would have dictated working conditions in Britain and could have undermined the labour market reforms pioneered by his predecessor Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, she was a fierce negotiator in organising rebates from Brussels from the UK’s oversized contributions to the EU budget.
In 1984, in the imperial grandeur at the historic palace of Fontainebleau in France, European leaders painfully conceded the famous British EU budget contribution rebate – or, as the French sarcastically called it, ‘le chèque Britannique’.
A new poll reveals voters support May going for talks with the EU but only one in three believe she will be successful
And let’s not forget that in the teeth of his promise to hold an in/out referendum, David Cameron returned from Brussels in the early hours one day in February 2016 with draft reform proposals agreed by European Council President Donald Tusk which he claimed would give Britain ‘special status’.
In the event, the pledges made by Brussels were so anaemic that they failed to convince British voters that sovereignty could be maintained by voting Remain – a huge mistake by the eurocrats who failed to recognise the strength of anti-EU feeling among large swathes of the UK population.
Both in national negotiations and in commercial transactions, reaching an accord more often or not comes down to the wire. Today, with the clock ticking inexorably to March 29, the desperation of the leaders of the other 27 EU countries to avoid an economic and financial crisis at the very moment that Germany and the eurozone are facing the bleak prospect of recession may be Theresa May’s best hope.
This is regardless of how unyielding Brussels negotiators have been to date and their willingness to play havoc with business confidence and financial stability by its brinkmanship.
The potential loss to Brussels of a £39billion one-off payment to a Commission cash-starved following years of economic slowdown, could potentially be a bargaining chip for the Prime Minister in the last-chance saloon.
In the final analysis, as veteran witnesses of the late-night sessions in Brussels, Nice, Maastricht and other destinations tell me, it’s mainly Germany and, to a lesser extent, France which decide.
Besieged by increasingly hostile populist movements, neither Berlin or Paris will want to make political life tougher than it already is.
The politics of the EU, at their most raw, are little different to those of the bazaar. The natural tendency is to relish an aggressive haggle but then to compromise – eventually.