Time for UK to make tough Brexit choices as technical tricks exhausted, EU leaders say

19 October 2018 10:37am

18 October 2018. By Zosia Wanat, Michael Acton, Matthew Holehouse and Sam Wilkin.

The idea of extending a Brexit transition was the last technical trick up negotiators’ sleeves, and now the UK must make tough decisions about the future relationship, EU leaders have said — even as Theresa May played down the significance of a possible extension.

“There is no additional political compromise to be made on the European side as now,” French President Emmanuel Macron said after today’s summit in Brussels. “The key element is a British political compromise. I think the negotiators identified all the different potential scenarios from a technical point of view.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed his comments. “I think that all of the different avenues have been sounded out quite thoroughly, all of the possibilities,” she told reporters.

With Brexit day fast approaching, negotiations remain stalled on the issue of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Both sides have proposed “backstop” solutions to avoid a hard border, to come into force if no better idea is agreed during a planned transition period. But each side’s solution has proven unacceptable to the other.

The EU wants to keep Northern Ireland in its customs union under the backstop. But May has rejected this as it would create a customs barrier within the UK — a position the UK prime minister repeated today. Meanwhile, London's proposal to keep the whole of the UK in the customs union have failed to sway EU leaders, who say it would take years to negotiate properly.

The UK is therefore laying the ground for a plan that would all but guarantee that the backstop never comes into force, as it would stay in a transition period until an all-UK solution is found. “Nobody wants the backstop to have to be used,” May said today.

The UK government confirmed it was looking at a possible extension clause to the planned 21-month transition period after Brexit, in order to bridge any gap that would otherwise be filled by the backstop being implemented.

While the UK government stressed today that it was an idea only and not a formal proposal, EU leaders welcomed this move, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said such an extension would “probably happen.”

Not there yet

But it’s no guarantee of success. In particular, it’s an open question whether the backstop would still be written into the withdrawal agreement as an insurance policy — as EU leaders will want — or if that would be unacceptable to the UK.

A UK official declined to say whether the UK was seeking to remove the EU’s proposed backstop altogether or just build a route around it. “That, as a backstop, with any prospect of it coming into force, is not acceptable to us,” the official said.

Meanwhile, May attempted to talk down the significance of the proposed extension following a political backlash in the UK, after the news broke last night. “We are not standing here proposing an extension to the implementation period,” May said. “What we are doing is working to ensure we have a solution to the backstop issue in Northern Ireland.”

The prime minister said the extension wouldn’t be a default option, but would rather be available to fill any “gap” between the planned end of the transition in December 2020 and the yet-to-be-agreed future relationship coming into force.

“If there is a period of months — and I think we would only be talking about a matter of months when there is that gap — it’s ensuring there’s no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland during that time,” she said.

No-deal preparations

Meanwhile, EU leaders said they were pressing ahead with preparations for a no-deal scenario. “Each and every one ought to prepare for a no-deal option,” Merkel said. “The European Commission, Germany is doing this.”

Macron said France was also prepared for a no-deal scenario should the two sides be unable to find a solution. “We have prepared ourselves, and we have taken steps,” he said. “Honestly, I do prefer a deal, but I will never favor a bad deal.”

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