Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
It is an oft-repeated truism about the European Union that deals are not done in Brussels until the coffee goes cold and the final deadline looms large.
Sleep deprivation, and a fear of being blamed for the consequences of failure, can sometimes be the only way of securing the agreement of 28 member states and MEPs from across the political spectrum. Hence, parliament budgets and council conclusions are frequently not settled until the early hours.
If you apply this principle to the Brexit negotiations, we could be some way off achieving a compromise on the Withdrawal Agreement. After all, March 29th is 49 days away, and the coffee is tepid but still drinkable. That means the Prime Minister may have little new to present to the House of Commons when she makes her promised statement on February 13, ahead of votes on another slew of amendments on Valentine’s Day.
I urge MPs to see that for what it is – a tried and tested EU negotiating ploy – and not play into Brussels’ hands by losing their nerve and restricting Theresa May’s room for manoeuvre in the more substantive negotiations that will inevitably take place as the deadline nears.
I am certain that the EU has a further offer to make as it attempts to avert a no-deal Brexit. But if MPs take the possibility of a no deal off the table on 14 February, that concession might never leave Michel Barnier’s briefcase.
Why should he produce it? The EU would have no need to invest the political capital required to reach a compromise if it believed that by simply sitting tight it might force the UK Government to accept a customs union or call a second referendum in order to break the deadlock. MPs’ votes against the Government embolden the EU in its approach.
There are plenty of signs that the EU is preparing the ground for a compromise. First came the unexpected comment by Margaritas Schinas, a senior Commission spokesman, who told journalists: “If you push me on what might happen in a no deal, I think it is pretty obvious that you will have a hard border.” This was intended to make clear to the Irish Government that a softening of its stance might be required.
It was not until 24 hours later, after much huffing and puffing in Dublin, that Michel Barnier issued a clarification. “We will have to find an operational way to carry out checks and controls without putting back in place a border,” he said. That sounds to me like a potential starting point for the post-14 February talks with the UK.
Separately, member states are beginning to exert influence. Jacek Czaputowicz, the Polish Foreign Minister, believes that “courageous actions” are needed to find an agreement and avoid a no deal. He said: “If Ireland turned to the EU about changing the agreement with Britain with regard to the provisions on the backstop so that it would apply only temporarily – let’s say five years – the matter would be resolved.”
Meanwhile, in Germany political voices are growing louder for the EU to do a deal. These culminated on Monday with the strongest comment yet by Angela Merkel, who expressed her hope that a compromise could be found. She said: “To solve this point you have to be creative and listen to each other, and such discussions can and must be conducted. We can still use the time to come to an agreement over the things that are standing in our way if everyone shows goodwill.”
It is becoming clear – not least to the Irish Government, whose citizens and businesses would be hardest hit by a no deal – that the backstop, which was conceived to avoid a hard border, is in danger of causing precisely that outcome.
The EU cannot allow that to happen and will, as March 29th approaches, either begin to flesh out Michel Barnier’s alternative “operational way” to carry checks or explore other options. For that to happen, MPs must understand what is playing out in Brussels and be mindful when they pass through the lobby next Thursday.
The temperature may be rising again in Westminster, but on this side of the Channel the coffee is not yet cold.