Brussels pressing ahead despite Brexit turmoil in London

By its own ‘concessions’ yardstick, the United Kingdom has not much to boast about

European Council president Donald Tusk on Thursday set November 25th as the date for a special EU summit to ratify the Brexit withdrawal agreement. The meeting, he told journalists, would "finalise and formalise" the agreement unless something "extraordinary" happened in the meantime.

Something pretty extraordinary was happening in London, but Brussels pressed ahead, dispatching the 585-page deal to capitals for their perusal, and convening the summit and the plethora of meetings that are needed to prepare it. All the while looking nervously over their shoulders at events in the Commons.

Michel Barnier had done his bit on Wednesday evening to assist UK prime minister Theresa May to overcome her difficulties by acknowledging publicly she had won a significant victory over the backstop. "This backstop solution has evolved considerably from the original EU proposal of February this year," he said. "Over the last few weeks, we have worked with the UK on the basis of their proposal."

In the caricature logic of the British popular press Brexit narrative there are only wins and losses, concessions and triumphs. No harm in giving May some credit.


Although in truth the old, despised Northern-Ireland-only backstop has been wrapped into and carefully hidden in the new all-UK customs union formula. But we shouldn’t quibble.

And the switch in policy was not entirely frictionless – several member states, worried that the UK would get an economic advantage from continued but unregulated access to EU markets, insisted on new “level playing field” regulatory requirements on the all-UK customs area in return. It was the first, and apparently only, sign of trouble in the ranks.

The backstop’s here

Barnier, in his generous remarks, was also putting down a useful marker, however – should London return to Brussels demanding to renegotiate the backstop, the most toxic element of the deal, he had already reminded them that, after all, they were working on a British proposal. And, as everyone knows, abandoning the backstop is out of the question.

The UK, by its own “concessions” yardstick, has not much to boast about, as Brexiteers keep pointing out. The most significant victory has certainly been a formula that allows the UK to claim that it has pushed the Court of Justice of the European Union off the stage as a dispute resolver. Instead the UK courts may decide issues having “due regard” to the jurisprudence of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU).

Again, not the whole truth. The court still has a central place as interpreter of what the EU law is in many areas of the treaty. As one official put it on Thursday: “The final arbiter of union law is the CJEU. The question is how you get there. With citizens rights, it is direct. The UK must enforce union law including rulings of CJEU.”

A British official was hard-pressed to come up with another example of a British “victory” in the negotiations.

Tusk warning

The prospect of renegotiation of the treaty was not one that people in Brussels wanted even to consider.

In sending the text off to member state capitals, Tusk spoke nervously of any attempt within the 27 to change the language, well aware that even minor amendments from within – let alone the major changes London is likely to seek – could see the deal unravel. They had to put their faith in negotiators, he implied.

“By the end of this week, the EU27 ambassadors will meet in order to share their assessment of the agreement,” he said. “I hope that there will not be too many comments.”

An EU official closely associated with talks spoke in a similar vein. She cautioned against imagining there was anywhere to go in new talks and of the negotiators having already “exhausted their margin of manoeuvre”.

Barnier is understood to be confident that member states will back the package as it stands, counting on the extraordinarily close dialogue he has maintained at every stage with ministers and MEP representatives, and his faithful adherence to the mandates they have given him.

Asked if the Irish had any concerns about the final evolution of the text as it came out of the blackout tunnel into which talks plunged over the past 10 days, one senior diplomat was scornful. “How could we now? We have been there every step of the way.” He praised Barnier’s skilful management of his many stakeholders.

In reality the ball is back in the UK court. The message from Brussels was similar to the one that May told her cabinet: “This is it. There’s no room for renegotiation. Take it or leave it. Deal or no deal.”