Brexit Q&A: Stalemate becomes even more stale

Little progress made, but acrimony grows and there’s even talk of backstop to a backstop

British prime minister Theresa May has said that the EU must present alternative Brexit proposals after the UK's Chequers proposal was rejected during a summit in Salzburg.

 

So, any progress this week on progress towards a deal on Brexit?

Eh, no. In fact, the stalemate in the negotiations has become even more stale.

The EU and UK are no closer to a deal and only got each other’s backs up after a disastrous EU summit in Salzburg as both sides dig in on their positions and the rhetoric becomes even more tetchy.

Where do both sides stand now?

EU leaders categorically rejected Theresa May’s Chequers plan that would create an EU-UK free trade area covering industrial goods and agricultural products after the Brexit in March 2019.

European Council president Donald Tusk said the plan “will not work” and gave her four weeks to rescue the Brexit talks, describing the next EU summit on October 18th as “a moment of truth” to provide a solution to avoid a hard Border in Ireland before any final Brexit treaty could be agreed.

May dug in, saying that her proposal was the “only plan on the table” and the only “serious and credible” plan to create frictionless EU-UK trade that could maintain an open Irish Border.

She went further in a televised statement from Downing Street on Friday, saying that there was no “credible alternative” from the EU and that rejecting Chequers plan without an alternative at this “late stage” was “not acceptable”. She called on the EU to treat the UK with “respect”.

The EU has proposed that Northern Ireland effectively stay in the customs union and the single market when the rest of the UK leaves. May strongly dismissed this as it would “dislocate” the UK.

She also ruled out a re-run of the Brexit referendum, as some European leaders hope. “I will not overturn the result of the referendum nor will I break up my country,” she said in a pugnacious address.

How have things become so acrimonious?

Hopes of progress in Salzburg or at least warm words about a potential compromise to avoid a no-deal Brexit were dashed as the EU ramped up pressure on May to propose something more acceptable to Brussels, either close alignment to the single market and customs union for all of the UK or a text around a legally binding “backstop” agreement to avoid physical infrastructure on the EU-UK border in Ireland.

What was expected to be an informal summit in Austria this week exposed the gulf between the sides and the EU dismissed the UK with some harsh words and in a humiliating way.

EU leaders were annoyed at what they saw as further attempts by the UK to rattle European solidarity on Brexit and undermine the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

They were also not impressed with May rehashing the UK’s “red line” conditions and needlessly setting new ones, by effectively saying it was Chequers or nothing and calling on the EU in a German newspaper article on the eve of the summit not to demand something “unacceptable”.

Afterwards, French president Emmanuel Macron, one of the fiercest critics of the Chequers plan, admonished Brexiteers that the Leave vote had been “pushed by those who predicted easy solutions,” adding: “Those people are liars.”

Tusk, after a difficult closing meeting with May, did not help relations by posting a photograph on Instagram of him offering May a cake with the caption: “A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries” – a reference to the EU’s oft-stated refusal to allow the UK “cherry-pick” EU rules that it likes.

What does May want now?

She has called on the EU to table new proposals so they can discuss them. “It is not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposals without a detailed explanation and counter proposals,” she said.

And what do the Irish want?

Dublin is seeking an intensification of the negotiations and a proposed text from the UK on the backstop. The Government is supportive of Barnier’s attempts (since July) to “de-dramatise” this option.

What does this mean?

EU negotiators are essentially arguing that the backstop might not mean new checks on the Border between Britain and Northern Ireland given that there are already inspections on animal health and food safety and that any new checks could take place away from the ports and airports, at farms and factories.

Are there any other ideas being floated?

Yes, one proposal involves a “backstop to a backstop”.

Wait, what?

Yes, to complicate things further, this is one solution being worked by EU negotiators, with support from Dublin. Given the problem around sequencing – a future trade deal could solve the Border issue but cannot be agreed until the Border issue is resolved – the EU would offer flexibility by proposing to negotiate a better version of backstop if the trade talks solve most but not all of the Border issue.

So what to watch for next?

The Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, starting on September 30th, will test May’s resolve to stick with her Chequers plan and confidence in her leadership that she can deliver Brexit in the face of hardline opposition from within a bitterly divided party.