LONDON — Another European Council summit, another Brexit negotiation deadline almost certain to be missed.
After an abortive attempt to cross the line on Sunday, the no-deal outcome that global markets dread is “more likely than ever before,” European Council President Donald Tusk said in his invitation letter to this week’s EU leaders’ summit, which had been earmarked as the staging post for a Brexit withdrawal agreement.
“As things stand today, it has proven to be more complicated than some may have expected,” Tusk said.
Few could disagree.
Ahead of the summit, here are four takeaways from the day after a nearly-deal:
1. Fundamentals haven’t changed
Addressing a packed House of Commons just after 3:30 p.m. U.K. time, May played down the drama of Sunday.
The U.K. and the EU, she said, are not “far apart.” She even tried for humor, dressing up the sticking points — around a legal guarantee that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — as the product of EU fastidiousness.
“Even with the progress we have made, the EU still requires a ‘backstop to the backstop,’” she said with a fleeting grimace. “Effectively an insurance policy for the insurance policy.”
What she means is the fundamentals have not shifted: The EU has not moved on the backstop — and unless it does, the prime minister cannot sign on the dotted line. This was the main message May wanted MPs to take away from her statement Monday.
In spite of the U.K.’s backstop proposal to remain in a “temporary customs arrangement” — a de facto customs union — with the EU up to and until the future trade deal is in place, the EU is not dropping its own version. Brussels wants its own backstop proposal for Northern Ireland to stay within the EU’s customs territory to be the ultimate legal guarantee against a hard border.
That is something May has argued is unacceptable because it would create an economic barrier between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.
Nevertheless, she said the EU has agreed to “explore” the idea of a U.K.-wide customs arrangement — but is insisting there is no time to agree this now. The U.K.’s proposal may have to form part of the talks on what Britain’s future relationship with the bloc will be.
The other sticking point is the U.K.’s demand that there be a clear statement in the Withdrawal Agreement signaling that, even if the backstop comes into force, it will be time-limited.
“I need to be able to look the British people in the eye and say this backstop is a temporary solution,” May said, acknowledging that even her own customs plan leaves the U.K. “unable to do meaningful trade deals.” Without that assurance she stands little hope of winning support from backbench Brexiteers.
2. The PM is on her own
This kind of statement is typically an opportunity for backbench Conservative MPs to give their leader a helping hand against the opposition by making supportive statements about the government’s position.
On Monday, very few Tory MPs did so and May cut a lonely figure at the dispatch box.
Leading Brexiteers including former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith asked her to put a hard deadline on the temporary customs arrangement. May repeated the government’s line that it “expects” the arrangement to end in December 2021.
Nigel Dodds, the Westminster leader of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 MPs guarantee May’s majority in parliament, asked for assurances that there would be no “differences” in single market and customs union rules affecting Northern Ireland and those affecting the rest of the U.K.
May offered the usual, non-specific pledge to “maintain the integrity of our union.” Dodds shrugged. His party is concerned at the willingness expressed by U.K. officials, speaking anonymously, to accept some additional regulatory checks on trade moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
Also concerning for May is a signal of revolt from another wing of her own party. Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, is one of several Conservative MPs now openly calling for a second referendum on Brexit.
May might have hoped that Grieve and his allies could have come to see her Brexit plan as a fair compromise. Instead, the MP made clear he couldn’t back her plan unless it came with a second public vote to ratify it. If likeminded MPs feel the same, it would significantly boost backbench opposition to any deal she achieves.
3. MPs are in charge
With the prospect of a no-deal Brexit looming ever larger, opponents of such an outcome are also beginning to war-game how it would play out.
Former Conservative Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan, a Remain-leaning ally of Grieve, told May that despite the prime minister’s continued insistence that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” the House of Commons would not back it.
In that scenario, Morgan predicted, MPs “would have to step in, into the negotiations.”
May appeared to confirm the primacy of the House of Commons in deciding the route ahead in the event of no deal — going further than she has previously on the issue.
“If it were the case that at the end of the negotiation process … both sides agreed no deal was there, then actually that would come back to this house and then we would see what position this house would take in the circumstances of time,” May said.
4. Brussels is flexing its muscles
In a show of strength that will be closely followed in London, the EU warned a non-member country with a major banking sector that it had only days to fall in line with EU law or face restrictions on stock market trading.
The country in its sights is Switzerland, but the message to the U.K. is clear: We call the shots.
Brussels wants Bern to follow EU rules on state aid and is seeking equal access to the Swiss services market. It is also pushing for guarantees on free movement of people and EU citizens’ rights.
The EU has long argued that Switzerland must agree to a new “framework agreement” to update a free-trade deal from 1972 and prevent what Brussels officials call “cherry-picking.”
Brussels said Switzerland has only until “mid-October” to say whether it is willing to comply. Without a deal, EU investors will effectively be blocked from Swiss stock markets from 2019.
Asked about Switzerland at a press conference in Brussels, Margaritis Schinas, spokesman for the European Commission, said: “Time is passing and the window of opportunity is closing.”
Jakob Hanke and Tom McTague contributed reporting to this article.