The October Brexit deadline yielded deadlock instead.
With negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal from the EU at an impasse, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May arrived at what was supposed to be a climactic EU leaders’ summit with no new proposals to unlock the vexed Irish border question.
Her government is, though, now “ready to consider” the notion of a longer transition period — something May indicated in a 15-minute, pre-dinner address to EU27 leaders, a senior EU official said. That in itself is a remarkable turnaround after months of insisting that just under two years was sufficient amid Brexiteer angst that Britain could not tolerate being subject to EU laws (and financial demands) for a moment longer.
But it is unclear if this would help the negotiations or complicate them further by enflaming Brexiteers back home, and it does not solve the fundamental problem in the negotiations or bring a solution closer. In her brief presentation to leaders, and in a longer one-on-one meeting with Council President Donald Tusk, May tried to put a positive spin on recent events. She highlighted progress in hammering out sections of the Withdrawal Agreement on Gibraltar and on U.K. military bases in Cyprus.
“The last stage will need courage, trust and leadership on both sides” — Theresa May
“A deal is within reach,” she said, according to officials who were briefed on her presentation.
But after May herself rejected a tentative agreement reached by negotiators at technical level on Sunday, the general feeling among EU27 leaders was of disappointment, dejection and rising concern that the talks could well fail.
“No one shared her optimism,” a senior official said. “There was no new proposal.”
In the one-on-one meeting, which lasted about 45 minutes, Tusk “expressed regret that we are not further along,” an official said. “We hoped to be in a different place. The hope was we would have virtually an agreement that EU27 leaders could discuss, assess, and come back at a November summit to formulate and finalize.”
Instead, as May departed for the U.K. ambassador’s residence and leaders rode the elevators up to the 11th floor for a dinner of fried mushrooms and turbot fillet cooked in wheat beer, the conversation shifted to disaster preparedness and whether there was any point in formally scheduling a November leaders’ summit. In the end leaders concluded that right now, there isn’t.
“The EU27 leaders stand ready to convene a European Council, if and when the Union negotiator reports that decisive progress has been made. For now, EU27 is not planning to organize an extraordinary summit on Brexit in November,” an EU official said.
The October leaders’ summit was a target for completing the divorce accord from the very outset of negotiations, with officials in Brussels and London in rare agreement that it would be the safest result, leaving more than five full months to secure ratification in the U.K. and European parliaments.
In short, they failed. And the disappointment was palpable. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė put it most plainly, noting that all leaders could do is hope for better results from the British side at the next meeting.
#Brexit dinner: negotiations not on the menu. Expecting full English breakfast at next meeting #EUCO
— Dalia Grybauskaitė (@Grybauskaite_LT) October 17, 2018
Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, was also less than effusive as he headed with the rest of the leaders for his chauffeur driven car. “I must admit honestly that a lot of what [Theresa May] told us was known to us,” he said, “There wasn’t much need for long discussion.” Angela Merkel canceled a press briefing that had been planned to follow the leaders’ discussion.
At dinner, which was capped off by a trio of sorbets — grape, pear and fig — leaders received an update and overall assessment of negotiations from their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. That was followed by an update on no-deal preparedness by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Throughout the day, EU leaders had said in response to reporters’ questions that they would be open to considering an extension of the 21-month transition period currently envisioned in the draft withdrawal treaty.
London is considering the idea, but even U.K. officials recognize that an extension of the standstill transition does not solve the fundamental problem in the divorce talks: how to prevent any recreation of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“This doesn’t solve anything,” the U.K. official said. “Not a single thing. It still means the U.K. has to sign the Northern Ireland backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement.” That’s a reference to the EU’s demand that Northern Ireland remain within its customs territory unless something else can be worked out to prevent a hard border.
Worse, it comes with a severe political cost: the delay, in many eyes, of any real Brexit. The U.K. would have to continue to abide by all EU rules, including freedom of movement, without any formal representation for Britain in Brussels and Strasbourg. An extension of a year would also come with a price tag of some £9 billion.
The very suggestion of remaining under the transition terms for longer risks inflaming opposition to May Brexit strategy within her own party. “Completely unacceptable,” said one senior Conservative backbencher in response to reports from the Brussels summit. “Doomed to fail.”
Tory Brexiteer MP Nadine Dorries called on May to quit “stalling” and “stand aside and let someone who can negotiate get on with it and deliver.”
The case in favor of a transition extension is that it would allow more time to reach a free trade agreement with the EU after Brexit Day in March next year, say three EU diplomats. That means that the Northern Ireland backstop — the legal mechanism to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland — is less likely to ever be needed.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was firm that a transition extension was no alternative to the backstop, but acknowledged that it might just “reassure people that the backstop would never be activated.”
Privately, however, EU officials conceded they are growing worried.
But what no one could explain was how that would necessarily break the logjam over a proposed “backstop” for the Ireland-Northern Ireland border. The transition could last for a hundred years — the EU would still insist on its version of the backstop being written into the Withdrawal Agreement, and the U.K. would still find it unacceptable.
Concluding her pre-dinner speech, May said: “The last stage will need courage, trust and leadership on both sides.”
Privately, however, EU officials conceded they are growing worried. Brexit began as an internal fight among the Conservative Party, and British infighting continues to be a major obstacle toward May being able to cut a deal.
The longer the talks go on with no success, officials said, the more prospect of total failure grows.
Maïa de la Baume and Paul Taylor contributed reporting.