Stephen Booth is Acting Director at Open Europe.
Parliament returns today for what is set to be a momentous week for British, and European, politics. We may be about to witness the events that could, finally, set us on course for a resolution to the first phase of the Brexit process, whatever that may be. Politicians and diplomats across the EU27 will be following the goings on in Parliament closely and assessing whether the Prime Minister’s strategy – to leave on 31st October “do or die”, with or without a deal – remains intact.
Boris Johnson stated last night that he does not want a general election. However, if Parliament succeeds in passing legislation obliging him to ask for an Article 50 extension, which he categorically refused to do, then there may be no other option.
Over the past fortnight, Johnson has successfully worn down the EU’s seemingly total opposition to any further negotiations over the Withdrawal Agreement. Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron both signalled their willingness to engage with British proposals for alternatives to the backstop.
However, this apparent softening of the EU’s rhetoric is yet to translate into anything substantive that could be moulded into a deal. Indeed, the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier reiterated in his article for the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend that the EU is willing to discuss alternative arrangements to the backstop, but only “upon ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement.” He added that he is “not optimistic” about avoiding a No Deal outcome.
Undoubtedly, Barnier’s article was as much a message to anti-No Deal MPs in parliament as it was to the UK government. The EU would be happy if Parliament takes the matter out of Brussels’ hands by taking No Deal off the table, even if only until after an election.
On the face of it, the hurdles to a revamped deal are sizeable. As we have seen in previous episodes between the UK and the EU over the years, Brussels negotiations rarely result in clear-cut victories for any party and the issue of the backstop appears to be rather binary. There seems to be little middle-ground between the UK and the EU positions. The Prime Minister wants the backstop removed and a solution to the Irish border found within the context of the wider negotiations about the UK-EU relationship. The EU says that the backstop is a necessary insurance policy against the UK-EU negotiations failing. This will be difficult to fudge.
It doesn’t take an expert to notice the flaw in the EU’s logic, which is that the UK-EU negotiations could fail because of the insurance policy. However, so long as Brussels can count on Parliament to block the path to No Deal, this flaw does not need to be confronted.
There are some signs that the EU is increasingly prepared to listen. It is encouraging that Barnier’s team met with Prosperity UK’s Alternative Arrangements Commission last week. UK negotiators are also expected to visit the Belgian capital for talks this week to discuss what alternatives to the backstop might look like.
There are murmurs on the ground in Brussels that officials are considering new ideas, such as sector-specific arrangements for Northern Ireland that might obviate the need for the backstop. For example, this might involve UK alignment with EU rules on agricultural and food products – arguably the biggest practical problem at the border. Northern Ireland would then need to choose whether to continue to follow UK or EU rules but only at such time as the UK diverged from EU rules. This is very similar to a proposal made by the Alternative Arrangements Commission. The question is whether the politicians are prepared to compromise, even if UK and EU officials can agree the outline of practical solutions.
The backstop is now a matter of principle as well as policy. With the potential for a No Deal looming, the EU might be prepared to make a new offer but it is unlikely to meet all of Johnson’s demands. Would the Prime Minister be prepared to put such a deal to Parliament in a straight choice against No Deal or not?
Ultimately, these are questions for a week’s time. It is impossible to know now whether the EU really might be open to a new compromise in the coming weeks. However, what we can say is that unless the prospect of the UK leaving without a deal remains on the table, there is very little incentive for them to do so.