Britain’s ‘moment of truth’ postponed
There is still no Brexit deal — not on the divorce, not on the future relationship.
It has been 846 days since the U.K. voted to leave the EU. There are 164 days left before Britain leaves, ready or not. And it’s all still up in the air.
From the very outset of negotiations, Wednesday’s European Council summit had been eyed as the target for completing a withdrawal treaty. Officials said that would leave a reasonable, five-month cushion to win ratification in the U.K. and European parliaments. The date has now arrived, but British politicians are still at odds internally, and EU leaders are still waiting for an answer.
With an accord on divorce terms still out of reach, EU officials said Tuesday that they are not inclined to call a special Brexit summit in November — meaning the next opportunity for EU leaders to affirm a Brexit agreement may not come around until December.
Any hope in Brussels that May would be in a stronger position to agree a withdrawal treaty after the Tory Party conference earlier this month was obliterated on Sunday when she sent her Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab to Brussels to reject a technical-level deal reached by negotiators.
May, it seems, still can’t see a path to a deal with the EU that won’t lead to a cascade of Cabinet resignations, or a revolt by her Democratic Unionist Party backers in Northern Ireland, or defeat in the House of Commons, or the collapse of her government, or all of the above.
And so as leaders arrive in Brussels on Wednesday, the saga continues.
European Council President Donald Tusk offered a bleak assessment on Tuesday, citing his most recent briefing from the EU’s chief negotiator, and overheated rhetoric in the U.K. parliament, though he said both sides still want an agreement.
“The report on the state of the negotiations that I got from Michel Barnier today, as well as yesterday’s debate in the House of Commons, give me no grounds for optimism before tomorrow’s European Council on Brexit,” he said. “And as I see it, the only source of hope for a deal, for now, is the goodwill and determination on both sides.”
At a summit in Salzburg, Austria, last month, Tusk had said that this week’s meeting should be “the moment of truth for Brexit.” There may be truth in Brussels on Wednesday evening, but the summit does not look like it will provide a moment for breakthrough. The danger is that in the absence of obvious forward motion the vacuum is filled with frustration and a repeat of terse exchanges that concluded the EU leaders’ meeting in Salzburg last month.
“Clearly we are not in a place where we wanted to be in October,” a senior EU official said.
“We have clarity, actually, more of the clarity now than we had in September in Salzburg,” the senior official said. “It is not going to be so easy to find a deal between the EU and the U.K.”
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While both sides have acknowledged some progress, EU officials said it is not yet adequate to warrant calling a special EU summit on Brexit in November. Still, no one is panicking.
Officials said that May would speak to her fellow leaders before an EU27 dinner on Wednesday night, and discussions are underway about potential bilateral meetings — a more likely setting for her to put forward a new offer, to Tusk, perhaps, or Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
EU ministers arriving at a preparatory meeting in Luxembourg Tuesday gave a hint of the reception May will receive from fellow leaders if she comes to Brussels only to underscore her red lines.
“To be completely frank it’s more a U.K. problem than an EU problem,” said Greek Foreign Minister Georgios Katrougalos before adding with a smirk that the 27 EU capitals are more united than London: “It seems you have more problems, the government, to have a unique position than we do at 27.”
French Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau underscored her country’s support for the Republic of Ireland. “There has to be a comprehensive solution on the Irish border. And this is key not only for Ireland but for the 27 — all of us,” she said, emphasizing France’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
Barnier, who attended the preparatory meeting, sought to keep the temperature low in his remarks but he suggested that the timeline for a deal is still a lengthy one — a matter of weeks not days.
“We are going to take time calmly and seriously to find this comprehensive accord during the coming weeks,” he said.
Germany’s Europe Minister Michael Roth was more blunt. “The situation is very serious, everyone has to step up their efforts, this is no game. We took a small moment to breathe, all parties involved have to examine whether the compromise lines are sufficient,” he said.
Asked if he has any advice for May, he added: “Take responsibility and be constructive.”
At a briefing ahead of the summit, a senior EU official brushed away questions hinting at conflict or conspiracy. Would the EU issue an ultimatum? No. Set any deadline? No. Does the EU have sympathy for May’s domestic political predicament. No, not especially.
“There are 28 complicated domestic situations in the EU,” the official said, engaging in a bit of exaggeration. The message: It isn’t the EU’s job to navigate May’s political difficulties.
Yes, the clock is ticking toward the March 29, 2019 deadline, at which point the U.K. will be out — deal or no deal. But the EU is more than accustomed to last-minute decisions on high-stakes issues. (See: debt crisis; Greece.)
“It’s normal that such decisions are taken at five minutes to 12,” the senior official noted. “When’s 12?” a reporter parried.
“Certainly not in October,” came the answer.