EU ready to push Britain near point of no-return on Brexit, diplomats say

The European Union is in no rush to convene an emergency meeting of EU leaders.
The European Union is in no rush to convene an emergency meeting of EU leaders.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS/LONDON (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - The European Union is prepared to take Brexit down to a last-minute, high-stakes summit rather than cave in to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s demands over the next few weeks, diplomats said. 

Although May is getting ready to head back to Brussels in an attempt to reopen the Brexit deal that she negotiated over the past 18 months, the EU isn’t planning any concessions before she faces another vote in the British Parliament on Feb 14, according to the diplomats.

Behind closed doors, European officials are sticking to their well-coordinated public line that they won’t rework the deal. 

The EU is in no rush to convene an emergency meeting of EU leaders, which would be necessary for any changes to the deal or for a Brexit-day delay.

Diplomats point to a scheduled summit on March 21-22 – just seven days before the United Kingdom is due to leave the bloc – as the moment when the two sides could be forced to act.

Some senior figures in the EU believe Britain needs to be all but out of options before accepting the deal, diplomats said.

“This is not a game,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a speech in Brussels on Wednesday (Jan 30), as he reiterated the importance of the so-called backstop arrangement to prevent a hard Irish border, which is the most contentious part of the deal.

He added that Tuesday’s House of Commons voting increased the risk of a disorderly exit and the EU won’t reopen the deal. 

Irish Backstop

As the threat of economic turmoil looms over the country, May, who said on Tuesday she has a mandate to renegotiate the deal, isn’t expected in Brussels this week. She held telephone calls with EU President Donald Tusk and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar late on Wednesday. 

“Yesterday, we found out what the UK doesn’t want, but we still don’t know what the UK does want,” Tusk tweeted after the 45-minute call, which an official with knowledge of it described as “open and frank”.

 
 
 
 

Varadkar told May that the need for the backstop had been reinforced. 

European governments now think that a Brexit postponement is increasingly likely, officials briefed on a meeting of EU ambassadors in Brussels on Wednesday said. However, they remain divided over how long a postponement should be. 

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Thursday negotiations with the EU could run close to the March 29 deadline and Britain might need a short delay to pass necessary legislation. 

“It’s difficult to know” how long the process will take, Hunt told BBC Radio, adding that finalising proposals to put to the EU on the Irish border issue is “not going to happen in the next few days.”

Parliament is likely to abandon plans for a 10-day break in February, House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom warned lawmakers on Thursday (Jan 31).

"It is only right that I give the House notice that there are currently no plans to bring forward a motion to agree dates for the February recess, and that the House may therefore need to continue to sit to make progress on the key business before the House," Leadsom said.

Parliament had been due to break up on Feb 14 and return on Feb 25, according to a provisional schedule.

But there are still eight laws needed to prepare for Brexit, not just on the deal but also covering issues such as trade, agriculture and immigration.

Leadsom had previously suggested Britain could probably secure "a couple of extra weeks" if needed. Any delay must be agreed by the other 27 EU countries.

‘Borders and Division’

While the EU won’t budge on the part of the Brexit deal covering the backstop, it is open to reworking some of the language related to future UK-EU relations in a bid to convince British members of Parliament that the backstop might never be needed, diplomats said. 

As the EU dug in, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said it’s “crystal clear” that the government won’t allow economic self-interest to trump concerns around the Northern Ireland peace process. 

“It is vitally important that politicians in Westminster understand the overwhelming wish across society in Northern Ireland not to return to the borders and division of times past,” Coveney said in a speech, in a signal that the government in Dublin isn’t going to soften its stance. 

The European Commission stepped up its no-deal contingency planning. Plans include a request for the UK to continue paying into the bloc’s budget in 2019 – even if the UK doesn’t agree to the deal – so that projects in Britain retain EU funding.