Brexit: We can expect some nice words from the EU but the Withdrawal Agreement is settled

Read few comments.


Questions:

1. European Council President Donald Tusk insisted the EU would not renegotiate but said leaders would discuss how to help facilitate UK ratification of WA. But is there anything the EU really can do to help PM Theresa May?

2. It seems that no-deal scenario is now pretty real, or do you see this less dramatically?

Answers:

Miguel Otero-IglesiasSenior Analyst, Elcano Royal Institute

1. Not really. If they do, they will betray the Irish side.

2. I have said since 24 June 2016 and throughout that Brexit won’t happen. I stick to my analysis. Brexit is bad for the UK. Sensible people know that.

Simon UsherwoodAssociate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey

1. Not much. Maybe the European Council can produce a statement  about its desire not to use the backstop, but that’s about as far as it can go.

2. No-deal has always been there, but yesterday’s decisions do make it more of a risk, if only because there is less time for miscalculations and errors. Parliament also appears not to understand that the only way it can avoid a no-deal is by agreeing to some other course of action, rather than just saying it doesn’t want a no-deal.

Iain BeggProfessor, European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science

1. At most the EU can ‘clarify’ some of the provisions of the withdrawal deal in a way that might help her, and perhaps amplify some of the vaguer statements in the political statement on the future relationship, but a true renegotiation altering the deal substantively is very unlikely

2. I think the probability of no-deal is small and declining because Parliament will not accept it. The more interesting question is how Parliament will go about defining and implementing an alternative. It could include an insistence on extending article 50 or a move to have a second referendum, but at this point the directions are not evident.

Jost-Henrik Morgenstern-PomorskiLecturer, European Studies, Department of Politics, Maastricht University

1. The European Council will certainly find a way to say some nice words, clarify something that is obvious to those on the EU-27 side already, or give other ‘declarations’ of their intent if that is what the May government is going to ask them to do. In a less pressing way maybe than in the past, it is still a case of helping out one of their own. But there aren’t going to be any ‘concessions’ or fundamental changes in the negotiated substance of the agreement. The majority of ideas floated in the UK’s domestic debate are simply not reconcilable with how the EU works and are not going to be on the table. So if her tour to some capitals this morning is an attempt at getting any additional major changes agreed, that is likely a wasted trip for her. So, in short, there is very little the EU can do.

2. My view of the Brexit process has been for some time now that no deal is the default outcome, unless something happens in the political landscape of the UK, say the government falling or the like. In a sense, that hasn’t changed, so there is no more urgency now than there had been before. With the ruling of the ECJ, the dynamics have changed in a sense that now a complete reversal of the Brexit process is a clearly spelled out possibility. The problem, as with all the other possibilities, is that there doesn’t seem to be a majority for that in the British parliament either. Of course, as the political pressure increases towards the Brexit deadline, maybe May’s deal will become more appealing even for some more hard line Brexiters, but that is far from certain. There have always been people in the conservative party that actually want a ‘crash’ out of the EU. And while there may also still be a majority for cancelling Brexit developing, it is unlikely. No-deal is for me still the most likely outcome, but then British politics is very volatile at the moment, so I assume we’ll have to wait well into the new year to find out if it can be averted.

Kenneth McDonaghAssociate Professor in International Relations, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University

1. As the EU have made clear, the Withdrawal Agreement is settled and given the red lines defined by the British Government is the best deal available. Both the Irish Government on a bilateral basis and the EU have also made clear that the backstop can only be accepted if it is an open ended commitment to avoid a hard border and border infrastructure on the island of Ireland ‘unless and until’ an alternative arrangement that delivers this outcome on a permanent basis. Given that the only thing the EU can offer is an amended political declaration that emphasises the desire to avoid using the backstop. The real problem here is that it is not clear if any concession exists that could command majority support in the British parliament. Theresa May’s decision to avoid a vote reflects the weakness of her position but the paradox is that despite it failing to command a majority, the Withdrawal agreement as it is has more support in the House of Commons than either of the alternatives – a hard Brexit or another referendum. A change to the Withdrawal agreement that pushes it closer to either end of this spectrum is as likely to lose it support as gain it from the other side. In all likelihood Prime Minister May will return to the House with a deal that is identical to the one currently on offer, with some minor changes to the Political Declaration. It remains to be seen whether that will allow her to win a vote on the agreement.

2. A no-deal scenario is becoming more real by the day. For the reasons above, the parliamentary arithmetic still doesn’t add up to clear support for a single Brexit model. At present the most likely way a no-deal can be avoided is that the opposition are likely to precipitate an election if a no-deal Brexit looms, as the EU have indicated they would consider extending the notification period in such a scenario which would at least push the no-deal scenario a little further down the road. However we are talking a matter of weeks rather than months. If Labour win, it’s unclear how they can deliver Brexit as their position is based on an unrealistic set of objectives that the EU have already ruled out. If Theresa May, or another Tory leader, returns to power. it’s unclear that she will have a majority in her party that support the Withdrawal Agreement in its current form and its extremely unlikely the EU will change its position on the indivisibility of the four freedoms or the backstop. The only chink of light in this is that an election might remove the role of the DUP in government, giving whoever holds power in Westminster more freedom to confine the backstop arrangement to Northern Ireland only.

Kristian SteinnesProfessor, Department of Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

1. Donald Tusk said as you say that the EU will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but would help facilitate UK ratification. As far as I can see, there is little the EU can do. They have now negotiated for two years, and the WA is finely balanced and opening one chapter have the potential to influence the balance in the whole deal. The ‘backstop’ related to the Irish border issue have been on the table since the outset, and have not been solved. I cannot se how it can be solved in the coming negotiations, and neither can I see how the EU (the Irish having a final say in this) would accept a backstop that could be revoked unilaterally by the UK. Consequently, the EU can issue letters of good intentions to settle the Irish border question, but I cannot imagine that they will let this issue be decided by the British alone. Thus I find it unlikely that the EU can do something substantially to alleviate the pressure on May and the government.

2. A no-deal scenario is a real possibility. Yet the prospect of the UK crashing out of the EU is a very serious thing, not only for Britain, but for the EU and Europe as well. Therefore, if the WA is put to the Commons/MPs and voted down before 21 January, (which is the definite deadline), I think one possible scenario may be that the EU27 decides to extend the two-year article 50 procedure (which is possible but requires unanimity) in order to let the British settle the issue. However, I do not think the EU will extend the two-year period only to let the British squabbling along, but if something substantial is at stake – i.e. a new referendum or a general election – I think an extension may be at hand.

If the WA is voted down, a possible scenario is that May falls with the deal, and possibly also her government. If the deadline is extended, we could see everything from a general election and a new government to a new referendum. This is also a practical necessity since there will be too little time to prepare for either a general election or a new referendum before the end of March. Or we could see a Canada plus compromise, or a ‘Norway for now’, which I find less likely, since it implies abiding by EU rules, including being subjected to the ECJ, and sticking to the rules of the Single Market/Customs Union without having a formal say.

Robin PettittSenior Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Department of Politics and International Relations, Kingston University

1. Realistically there is very little that the EU27 can do to help May, other than to reopen negotiations and give concessions. However, the EU27 have made it very clear that reopening negotiations is not an option. Obviously, in politics, things that are definitely not an option, can suddenly become an option when circumstances change. However, at least for the moment all the EU27 seem likely to give May are platitudes. It is also difficult to see what kind of concessions would actually satisfy both the leave and remain wings of the Conservative Party.

2. Clearly, any minute that goes by with out a withdrawal agreement in place takes us closer to a no-deal withdrawal. However, the impact of a no-deal withdrawal would be so profoundly disruptive that it is difficult to see any parliamentary majority agreeing to it. If we get too close to 29 March for an agreement to be passed in time for the Brexit deadline, the most likely scenario is an extension of the deadline. That would no doubt be men with howls of outrage from multiple parts of the British political spectrum, but that has been the nature of the entire Brexit process.

Nick WrightTeaching Fellow in EU Politics, University College London

1. This is a good question and I’m really not sure. The challenge May has faced from the start has been her own red lines and the impossibility of leaving the SM and CU; leaving the jurisdiction of the ECJ; and maintaining an open border in Ireland. These have always been incompatible and if after 2+ years they have not been able to come up with a solution or formula to resolve them, then I don’t see that happening now. The EU has been clear and consistent from Day 1 so we can’t claim to be surprised – the integrity of the single market and customs union (which are, after all, legal structures) cannot be compromised. I think there are some in May’s party who still don’t understand that. But there are others who are definitely using this as an excuse to push for the hardest of Brexit through a chaotic ‘no deal’ and will then blame the EU for what follows. This is not a matter of law or regulation for them – it is a point of ideology on which no compromise will be permitted. (Indeed, were May to come back with some form of words from the EU27 to try and make the back-stop more palatable, I still think they would reject it.)

Which brings us to May herself. This is the inevitable consequence of her own strategy which involved an inflexible interpretation of what Brexit means and a refusal to reach out domestically to build a consensus around what to do next; and her weak negotiating position in Brussels. These negotiations were always going to see the UK – whatever its economic and political power – in a weaker position. I don’t believe Mrs May did not know or understand this which means she has been misleading people for years as to what is possible and what the consequences of Brexit will really be. Thus we find ourselves where we are.

Finally, whatever the warm words from Tusk and co, I don’t believe there is any appetite to re-open substantive negotiations – and I suspect the EU27’s well of good will and trust is starting to run dry towards us. They can see and understand everything that is going on domestically and it would be entirely understandable if they start looking towards damage limitation ahead of a no deal crash out in March.

And here we come to the final point which is very interesting indeed. In light of yesterday’s ruling that the UK can withdraw Article 50 unilaterally, the PM no longer has any excuse to say we have no alternative. A decision to let the UK crash out without a deal would be exactly that – conscious and deliberate.

2. No deal has been a serious scenario for some time now. But I don’t think it is any more or less likely than it was 2 weeks ago or even 2 months ago as the contours of the Withdrawal Agreement have been known for months. The truth is there are a number of scenarios – including a second referendum – which remain viable. Indeed, I think a second referendum is just as likely as no deal. The only thing we have to remember, though, is that the Article 50 clock means No Deal will definitely happen if nothing else does. In that sense it is a certain outcome in certain circumstances. That does not make it more likely, though.

David PhinnamoreProfessor, Dean of Education, School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queens’s University Belfast

1. I cannot see the EU agreeing to alter the substance of the backstop at least as they relate to Northern Ireland. It can offer May some political assurances that it does not wish to see the backstop enter into force and that it will do its utmost in cooperation with the UK to avoid using the backstop. But I certainly cannot see the EU re-opening negotiations.

2. The prospect of the EU leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 without a deal is very real. There is, however, a deal and it is possible that May will return to the House of Commons following further discussions with the EU27 with some clarifications and potentially minor revisions to the text that might secure support among MPs. Indeed MPs may, as they contemplate the impending prospect of a chaotic ‘no deal’ Brexit decide that May’s proposal is after all worth supporting. There are still just over three months to go until 29 March 2018 and there are very few MPs who want a ‘no deal’ Brexit and will want to take responsibility for causing it.

Carine Germond, Associate Professor, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

1. There is not much the EU can do to help out Theresa May. Tusk but also Juncker have made it crystal clear that a renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement so painstakingly negotiated for the last 2 years was not on the table. RE-opening negotiations would amount to opening a new can of worm that is certainly not in anyone’s interest and time is running out given the March 2019 deadline. Nor is there many, if any, alternative options that could be re-negotiated given the well-known red lines of either side. What little EU leaders could do to help May convince Westminster and the feuding Brexiters in the Conservative party is merely offering some, albeit cosmetic good will to clarify the most contentious issues such as the backstop for Ireland. This was the gist of Juncker’s declarations yesterday (11 December) when he suggested that the EU could offer “clarifications and interpretations” on the backstop solution while being adamant that reopening the negotiations was not an option. It is however more than doubtful that those clarifications and interpretations would have enough substance for May to sell at home as concessions or come early enough, especially now that her fate as PM hangs in the balance.

2. The twists and turns of British politics have proven time and again that one should always ‘expect the unexpected’ when it comes to Brexit. If anything, the confidence vote that will be held today only confirms this. If May loses the confidence vote, then a no-deal will be the most likely scenario indeed. Among her most serious contenders and potential successors are a number of hard Brexiters (e.g. Johnson, Mordaunt) who have been openly supporting the no-deal option. Others (e.g. Raab, Hunt, Gove) may try to salvage the withdrawal in one form or another and obtain concessions from the EU on the backstop. Given the divisions within May’s party it is also unclear how long it would take for a candidate with enough support to emerge while May would be a lame duck in office unable to achieve anything. But, as May’s, the hands of her successors – if she loses the vote – will be tied by the Eurosceptic, hard Brexit faction in the Tory party on the one hand and the refusal by the EU to revise the WA on the other hand. If May wins the confidence vote, it would strengthen her and give her the momentum to have the WA ratified by Parliament. Whatever the outcome of today’s confidence vote, it is relatively safe to say that the least likely consequences are for the existing or a new British government to request an extension of art. 50 (not a very realistic option given the need to have a unanimous vote from all EU MS it would require, the forthcoming EP elections and election of a new Commission) or revoke or reverse unilaterally article 50 (legally possible after the ECJ’s ruling but politically risky).

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