As Theresa May travels to Europe to seek out a lifeline from the political trap of Brexit, three top European leaders publicly insisted there was none to give. EU council president Donald Tusk announced yesterday that there was no possibility of reopening negotiations on Brexit and warned the British that they’d already gotten the best deal possible. Tusk also called a new meeting of the European Council to plan for a no-deal Brexit, which seems a lot likelier now:
Donald Tusk said leaders would discuss the agreement struck last month at a meeting and that leaders were “ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification”.
But he warned that the bloc would use the meeting to discuss no-deal planning “as time is running out”. …
“I have decided to call European Council on Brexit on Thursday,” Mr Tusk said on Monday evening. “We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario.”
That message got amplified today by Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. Juncker wonders why they’re even talking with May about the Brexit deal at this late stage. If May wants to redo the “backstop” for Ireland, Juncker says forget it:
“There is a surprise guest at the European Council, which is Brexit,” Juncker said in the plenary of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. “I am surprised because we had reached an agreement on the 25th of November, together with the government of the United Kingdom.”
“The deal we have achieved is the best deal possible — it’s the only deal possible,” Juncker declared, pausing as applause echoed through the plenary. “So there is no room whatsoever for renegotiation.”
“But there is room,” Juncker added, “if used intelligently, there is room enough to give further clarification, and further interpretations without opening the Withdrawal Agreement. That will not happen. Everyone has to know that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.”
On the backstop, which is intended to prevent the recreation of hard border on the island of Ireland and protect the Good Friday Peace agreement in the absence of a larger deal between the U.K. and EU on their future economic relationship, Juncker said: “We have a common determination to do everything to be not in a situation to one day use that backstop.”
But he was adamant it could not be discarded from the deal. “We have to prepare. It’s necessary. It’s necessary for the entire coherence of what we have agreed with Britain, and it is necessary for Ireland. Ireland will never be left alone. “
May’s meeting with Merkel seems to be her last play to get some breathing room in this political vise. Unfortunately, the visit got off to a bad start and got worse from there:
NO EXIT: U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May appears to get locked inside her car as she meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
— ABC News (@ABC) December 11, 2018
After all that effort, May heard from Merkel the exact same thing she heard from Juncker and Tusk — tough luck, Theresa:
Angela Merkel told Theresa May there’d be no renegotiation of the Brexit deal during talks between two leaders this lunchtime. Mrs Merkel – who’s been briefing senior CDU MPs on the talks – said she’s still optimistic a solution can be found
— jenny hill (@jennyhillBBC) December 11, 2018
Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar called for May to either delay the date of the UK’s exit from the EU, or to cancel it altogether:
It remains in the hands of the UK to decide that we don’t end up in a no-deal scenario.
The option is there to revoke article 50, the option is there to extend article 50, and while there may not be a majority for anything or at least any deal at the moment in the House of Commons, I do believe that there is a majority that the UK should not be plunged into a no-deal scenario.
It is in their hands at any point in time to take the threat of no deal off the table, either by revoking article 50 or, if that is a step too far, by extending it.
Former Tory PM John Major earlier called for Brexit to be canceled immediately before a new hard border in Ireland starts to “reactivate old disputes and hatreds.” Major’s point of view appears to be gaining momentum in Britain. A pollster found “a significant decrease in the strongest supporters of Brexit” over the past year, perhaps caused by the unsolvable conundrums that have arisen during negotiations:
The research by Britain Thinks found a significant decrease in the strongest supporters of Brexit and an increase in the most pro-remain voices.
Yet, the researchers also found little consensus for a way out of the chaos. Voters were generally negative about the prime minister’s Brexit deal and became even more so when the deal was referred to as “Theresa May’s”.
However, the study also found support for a second referendum had slipped slightly since June and a majority were deeply concerned about the prospect of no deal. …
The study had categorised voters into “diehards” who backed Brexit enthusiastically, “cautious optimists” of both leavers and remainers who were hopeful of making a success of Brexit, “accepting pragmatists” of disappointed remainers who believed the referendum result should be honoured, and finally the “devastated pessimists” who could not see any positives to leaving the EU.
Researchers found the number of “diehards” had shrunk significantly, from a third of the public to just over a quarter. The number of “devastated pessimists” has risen by 5% – overtaking the “diehards” as the largest number of voters.
May will end up coming home empty-handed and facing a vote on a deal that won’t pass and that voters don’t support. The Tories will likely initiate a leadership fight, but replacing May as PM isn’t going to solve the problem of Brexit. Regardless of who’s in charge, they will have three choices, none of which will work out well in the end:
- Hard no-deal Brexit that severs ties with their most important trade partner, the EU, in the worst possible way
- Revoke their Article 50 declaration and stay in the EU, angering the voters who voted for Brexit in the referendum
- Hold a new referendum to build support for the present deal
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board suggests a punt and a focus on fixing the UK’s internal issues before coming back to Brexit. And those are even stickier than Brexit:
The political class under Labour and the Tories spent a generation moderating Margaret Thatcher’s supply-side reforms, burdening the economy with more spending and more red tape. Britain’s economy still grew, especially under Prime Minister David Cameron. But GDP growth obscured regional disparities and shortfalls in productivity and innovation that will hold back an independent Britain.
As a result, businesses aren’t wrong to warn of dire consequences if they lose the trade benefits of EU membership that offset some of the efficiency losses produced by bad domestic policy. This fact bedevils Brexit politics and points up a strategic error by free-market Brexit supporters. They thought leaving the EU would trigger a Thatcherite policy renaissance. Instead, an earlier reform resurgence would have made a clean break from the EU easier.
The same goes for the border between Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland remaining in the EU. The imperative to maintain a soft border free of customs checks is paralyzing Brexit, and it’s happening because a peace process that started more than 20 years ago still hasn’t produced a durable settlement. Pro-Brexit politicians made matters worse with cavalier attitudes to Britain’s partners in Dublin that damaged trust. Former government minister Priti Patel last week suggested the threat of food shortages should have been used as leverage against Dublin, a ghastly reminder of the famine of the 1840s.
This broader context illuminates the true nature of Mrs. May’s failures. She made a good Brexit all but impossible by pursuing a Labour-lite domestic program that bottles up the dynamism Britain needs to unleash. Then, after losing an election she called, she propped up her government with help from a Northern Irish party entwined in sectarian politics. …
Neither Britain nor the EU was politically or intellectually ready for Brexit. A failure of leadership has made the breakup far more difficult and damaging than it had to be.
I’m skeptical that any extra time would go toward unwinding any of these problems. The Ireland issue has bedeviled the UK for more than a century (and much longer than that in other forms, of course), and the EU was a handy salve to avoid it for the last 20 years. It gave both sides of that issue a chance to see the EU as a higher sovereign than the UK and so paper over the enmity that existed before the Good Friday Agreement. Even with that, Northern Ireland hasn’t been able to form an executive in almost two years, demonstrating the unfortunately enduring nature of those divisions.
As long as the UK remained in the EU, that status quo was sustainable. It was clear from the beginning, however, that reasserting British sovereignty outside of an EU in which Ireland had an equal voice would demolish that arrangement. The EU had no incentives to let the UK off that particular hook, either.
Outside of a political miracle, May’s finished, and she’s likely to be replaced by a hard-Brexiter who will motor full steam ahead into the shoals. A pause would at least offer some reassessment before the shipwreck.