Helen Maguire –
The European Union delivered a clear message on Wednesday after Westminster rejected the Brexit divorce deal struck with Brussels: The deal is not up for renegotiation and Britain must now say what it wants.
“It is now for the British government to clarify how the United Kingdom wants to proceed to organise the orderly withdrawal that it requested,” said EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, warning that the risk of a no-deal Brexit “has never seemed so high.” “The time for kids’ games is over,” added German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
Within minutes of the vote, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned that the deal painstakingly negotiated with London remains the “only way” to prevent a disorderly Brexit.
“I urge the United Kingdom to clarify its intentions as soon as possible. Time is almost up,” he added.
Britain is due to leave the EU in 10 weeks’ time, on March 29.
After suffering a record defeat, Prime Minister Theresa May survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on Wednesday.
May has pledged to hold cross-party talks aimed at breaking the Brexit deadlock, ahead of a Monday deadline to present British lawmakers with a plan B.
In the meantime, Brussels is in waiting mode.
“At this stage, there is nothing more that the EU can do,” Juncker’s spokesman Margaritis Schinas put it bluntly.
The bloc insists that it cannot accept changes to the divorce deal,notably regarding the highly contentious Irish backstop, an insurance policy aimed at preserving peace in Northern Ireland at the risk of locking the United Kingdom into close EU trade ties.
“The backstop must be a backstop; it must be credible,” Barnier said on Wednesday.
However, he pointed out that the EU stood ready to deepen the scope of the future Britain-EU relationship — outlined in a political text accompanying the divorce deal – should Britain’s red lines evolve beyond anything more than a simple free trade deal.
There has been speculation that May could secure a cross-party majority in parliament by softening the Brexit deal, for example by proposing a long-term customs union with the EU as favoured by the opposition Labour party.
But any such move would require new rounds of negotiation between London and Brussels, raising the prospect of a British demand to postpone Brexit – a move May has so far steadfastly rejected.
Extending the March 29 deadline would be “legally and technically possible,” if approved by the other 27 member states, French European affairs minister Nathalie Loiseau said on Wednesday, while noting that London would have to justify its request.
“If it was to tell us that Europe must make more concessions, then there wouldn’t be much we could do,” Loiseau noted.
Berlin appeared favourable on Wednesday to granting London extra time, with Austria and the Netherlands also showing willingness to consider such a request.
“If needed, the EU should allow for additional time to achieve a position by the British parliament and people,” German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told the British broadcaster BBC.
Across the EU, meanwhile, officials said they were accelerating preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
“The risk of a disorderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom has increased,” Juncker said after Tuesday’s vote.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said parliament will consider laws on Thursday that would come into effect should Britain leave with no deal.
Amid the uncertainty, European Council President Donald Tusk hinted that the possibility of Britain remaining in the EU was also on the table.
“If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is? “Tusk tweeted soon after the British parliament delivered its verdict.
Helen Maguire –