Brussels watches carnage at Westminster with bewilderment

Third extension likely to be granted by council if requested, despite reservations

We are once again in the Brexit "the ball's in London's court" mode. Supreme court, in this case.

And in Brussels we watch and wait in a strange limbo while “technical talks” proceed slowly – a new UK “non-paper” on animal and food issues arrived on Tuesday. “Nothing has changed from a talks perspective,” one official said, shrugging his shoulders.

Speaking in Germany just ahead of the supreme court ruling on Tuesday, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier reiterated gloomily that there was "no reason today for optimism" in the Brexit talks. No one was amending that assessment after the court pronounced.

No one here in official or negotiating circles will comment on the ruling – their schadenfreude reflected only in grins from ear to ear. Comments are hostages to fortune to the hungry British press pack. Always reinterpretable. No one wants to make matters worse, though Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's chief Brexit co-ordinator, can't resist a poke at "British democracy".

And, genuinely, no one knows what is going to happen next.

There is a sense in Brussels that maybe the UK supreme court decision is going to make it more likely that a crash-out on October 31st does not happen, but that is only partially reassuring. An extension will not in itself see the gulf between the two sides on a deal narrow unless, somehow, the Johnson government is replaced.

‘Our only interlocutor’

Until that happens, as the European Commission reminds journalists almost daily, the “UK government is our only interlocutor”. The Brexit task force may listen to delegations from the Commons Brexit committee or from the DUP, but listening is all it does.

A third extension is likely to be granted by the European Council if requested, despite reservations. MEPs last week in the parliament were very keen, but there is also a strong lobby that says an extension can only happen in the context of a promised general election or referendum.

Could Boris Johnson, arm-twisted by the House of Commons, ask for an extension just to continue talks, and then let the clock run down to a no-deal departure in, say, December? Sources say that the European Council is unlikely to be willing to indulge him, and will require an assurance before granting an extension that a game-changing event will take place.

It is understood the UK had hoped the discussions between EU leaders and Johnson on the margins of the New York UN General Assembly meeting would give a political signal and new impetus to the discussions.

Those talks were cut short by his sudden return to London, but the discussions that happened, between the British PM and council president Donald Tusk and with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, seem to have added nothing .

Withdrawal agreement

British sources suggest that while agreeing details of the measures necessary in a backstop, or equivalent, to protect the single market will be lengthy and complex, that process could continue in the next phase of discussions on the future relationship if that political impetus was given – agreement on what level of guarantees would suffice for approval of a withdrawal agreement. Somewhat less than 100 per cent at this stage, they suggest.

Ireland and the EU have resolutely opposed leaving any element of the backstop guarantees to the future relationship talks, which many believe are anyway not capable of producing backstop-level guarantees for the single market.

Barnier warned again on Tuesday that the next stage of negotiations after a UK departure from the EU would be even harder.

Not least, that is, because the UK is insisting on unacceptably watering down commitments to maintaining future regulatory alignment with the EU so that they are free to do trade deals with others (although sources say they are happy to stand by the no-standards slippage – "no regression" – commitments made by Theresa May in the political declaration).

Meanwhile, we wait on developments in London. Anything could happen.

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