“The deal is non-negotiable.” The paragraphs of the European Council “Conclusions” dedicated to Brexit (the summit continues today with a different agenda), are extremely clear. For months, efforts have been placed to deliver Great Britain’s “orderly leave” from the European Union, and this deal – whether Westminster, Brexiteers or Tories like it or not – will remain unchanged. EU27 leaders put it on paper last evening. In the awareness of the critical environment that Theresa May finds herself in, they “softened” the paragraphs regarding the “backstop”, i.e. the part of the deal regarding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“Full respect for Westminster.” With a face marked by fatigue after hours-long discussions, Donald Tusk entered the press room shortly before midnight to say that “Today Prime Minister May informed the leaders about the difficulties with ratifying the deal in London and asked for further assurances that would at least in her view unlock the ratification process in the House of Commons.” After discussing the Premier’s intervention among EU27 leaders – namely after having bid farewell to May –”and bearing in mind our full respect of the parliamentary process in the United Kingdom, we have agreed five points”, Tusk said. The points are enlisted in the Conclusions. First of all, the European Council “reconfirmed its conclusions of November 25 in which it endorsed the withdrawal agreement and approved the political declaration”, regarding future relations with the United Kingdom. It is specified that the deal “is not open for renegotiation.” Second: the European Council reiterates that “it wishes to establish as close as possible a partnership with the United Kingdom in the future” and that “it stands ready to embark on preparations immediately after signature of the Withdrawal.” Despite turns of phrase, the date of the divorce remains next March 29, with no going back and full respect for the decision taken by British subjects, whilst preserving good business and political relations for the future. For EU27 – spelled out in the declarations of the various leaders – at this point the island is a third Country.
No hard border. Point 3 is the most interesting, for it softens the tones of the backstop. In this respect the Conclusions (the official document containing the summit’s decisions on the various items on the agenda) underline that the “safety net” (i.e., the backstop) “is intended as an insurance policy to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland and ensure the integrity of the Single Market.” The EU is “firmly determined” to work speedily on a subsequent agreement that establishes “by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements, so that the backstop will not need to be triggered.” In other words, nobody wants the recovery of a physical border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland, with barriers and tariffs, risking to bring Ireland back in time, with conflicts and dividing walls between the people of Northern Ireland, the Queen’s subjects, and the Irish citizens of the Republic. The backstop would thus temporarily keep the North in the Single Market, until the adoption of new regulations agreed with the British government. Pro-Brexit hardliners refuse to accept this clause, for they believe that it would in fact reintroduce Northern Ireland into EU economy.
A friendly farewell. Thus at point 4 the European Council underlines: “if the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided.” In such a case, the Union “would use its best endeavours to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop”, so that the backstop would only be in place “for as long as strictly necessary.” Finally, in point 5 (on the finalizing aspects), the Council “calls for work on preparedness at all levels for the consequences of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal to be intensified, taking into account all possible outcomes.” May can return to London saying that she made EU27 see reason while the latter reconfirmed their friendly farewell to London. Now it’s up to Theresa May to “sell” the modest results to the political arena. The deal will need to be finalized after Christams, perhaps with the umpteenth extraordinary European Council. Time is running short, March 29 is drawing near.