Brexit: EU combats UK’s blame-shifting with savvy extension

Process was extremely political and so necessitated high-level input from the leaders

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council president Donald Tusk and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photograph: Yves Herman/File Photo/Reuters

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council president Donald Tusk and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photograph: Yves Herman/File Photo/Reuters

 

“Until April 12th, anything is possible,” European Council president Donald Tusk said of the Brexit process on Friday.

Summing up the EU’s summit in Brussels and the breathing-space extension the UK has been given to get a Brexit deal, Mr Tusk said the options still ranged from a deal to a long extension – “if the UK decided to rethink its strategy” – or abandoning Brexit altogether by “revoking article 50”.

But pessimism pervaded the meeting. Leader after leader privately expressed their fear that UK prime minister Theresa May would not be able to win a majority for the withdrawal agreement and that a no-deal scenario must be, as lead negotiator Michel Barnier was quoted as saying, their working assumption.

Diplomats say they fear that Mrs May, if voted down in the Commons, would indeed prefer no deal to a deal with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Her next “meaningful vote” is expected on Tuesday.

Donald Tusk spoke pointedly about 'the spirit of neighbourly co-operation'

There was a sense of bewilderment at Mrs May’s repeated inability or unwillingness in response to their questions on Thursday night to set out her plans should she lose the meaningful vote.

All she would say is that she intended to win, and yet she was here looking for their support.

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Needing a ‘miracle’

Latvian prime minister Krisjanis Karins asked her why she remained “so optimistic”, while the Luxembourg prime minister, Xavier Bettel, said only a “miracle” would allow her to succeed.

French president Emmanuel Macron warned that what they faced was a systemic crisis of British politics: “The EU today had to face up very clearly to a crisis of the British political system. British politicians are today incapable of putting into practice what their people have asked of them.”

Thursday night’s deal moves the departure cliff edge from next Friday night until April 12th, and beyond to May 22nd should Mrs May win her vote next week.

Unusually, it was drafted by the leaders themselves, meeting late into the night. Officials said the process was extremely political and so necessitated high-level input from the leaders, who appear to have been particularly concerned to demonstrate that, if a no-deal happens, the EU cannot be blamed.

China demoted

Brexit was inevitably a leitmotif in all the discussions, even pushing aside the important debate on China-EU relations.

A lengthy discussion on preparing for an EU-China summit in April was curtailed but officials were keen to emphasise its importance strategically.

As leaders joined their counterparts from Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein on Friday morning to mark 25 years of the European Economic Area – the free-trade zone that links them to the EU – Donald Tusk spoke pointedly about “the spirit of neighbourly co-operation”.

No one could really doubt what he was suggesting: “Today, within the EEA, more than 500 million people are free to move and travel, to do business and invest with ease, to receive an education, conduct cutting-edge research abroad, while enjoying the safest consumer protections, the highest standards at work and the cleanest environment.

“We have accomplished this through shared pragmatism, and in a spirit of neighbourly co-operation.”

Whether London is listening is another matter.