EU leaders increasingly certain that UK will seek Brexit delay
Analysis: Brussels shows willingness to talk but will not take the blame if there is no progress
Commission officials have warned there is an effective deadline of this Friday for any proposals that may be put to the EU summit the following Thursday. Photograph: PA
All the cross-channel megaphone diplomacy notwithstanding, what is going on in the talks process? Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
“We are not in the tunnel,” a European Commission official insisted on Friday. “Where is the tunnel?” asked a visiting ITN correspondent.
“The tunnel is not a place, but a state of mind,” came the sphinx-like response.
But the message was clear.
Despite the insistence by British prime minister Boris Johnson that Brussels has “welcomed” his new proposals, we have not moved on from “technical talks” to real “negotiations”, a qualitative distinction that matters a great deal to the European Union but is dismissed by the United Kingdom.
The “tunnel” is an intensive phase in negotiations when those tasked with face-to-face bargaining shut themselves off even from those from whom they take instruction, in this case ambassadors and MEPs – and the prying press – to get an agreement over the line.
In one sense last week was a significant step forward. We moved on from “non-papers”, discussion documents which do not commit parties to scenarios they purport to describe, to formal proposals from the UK which can be turned into legal treaty language.
But after welcoming that important step, commission president Jean Claude Juncker made clear, in an understatement that fooled no one, that the British proposals remained “problematic”.
Brussels is still showing a willingness to talk, is not closing the door, but will not be blamed if there is no further progress.
Then the other institutions piled in. MEPs, who will have to vote on an agreement, said the British proposals do not “even remotely” amount to an acceptable deal.
“The proposals do not address the real issues that need to be resolved if the backstop were to be removed, namely the all-island economy, the full respect of the Good Friday agreement and the integrity of the single market, “ noted the statement from the parliament’s Brexit steering group.
It echoed language from the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. He continues to insist negotiations cannot begin unless the UK comes up with proposals that do at least as much as the backstop to safeguard the frictionless Border and safeguard the single market.
The problems were “cornerstones”, to use Juncker’s word, of the proposed deal – customs checks somewhere in Ireland, and a “consent” provision that made supposedly iron-clad and permanent guarantees conditional on votes in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
European Council president Donald Tusk said on Thursday the EU was “fully behind Ireland” over the latest Brexit plan and “unconvinced” by Johnson’s latest Border proposals.
A commission spokeswoman insisted the British proposals did not “provide a basis for concluding an agreement”.
The Johnson “landing zone” is outside the ballpark and his suggestion that all that was needed was “essentially a technical discussion of the exact nature of future customs checks” was ridiculed.
Technical talks could, and did, continue but the basis for real negotiations is not yet there.
When the UK team suggested they continue in the same vein over the weekend, they were told to go away and come back with revised proposals on Monday, if they want real negotiations to begin.
“We will meet again on Monday to give the UK another opportunity to present its proposals in detail,” said a spokeswoman.
“If we held talks at the weekend it would look like these were proper negotiations,” an EU diplomat told the London Times. “We’re still a long way from that. We need to work out quickly whether there is the opportunity to close that gap.”
Following a conversation on Saturday with Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, Johnson was told the EU27 would not accept an agreement that created a customs border in Ireland and demanded wholesale changes to theUK proposals by this week.
“Important questions remain about the British proposals,” said Rutte afterwards. “There is a lot of work to be done ahead of [an EU summit] on October 17-18th.”
Commission officials have been warning there is an effective deadline of Friday on proposals for the summit the following Thursday.
A study of any deal by ambassadors, ministers, prime ministers’ “sherpas”, and legal teams in the capitals, not to mention translation into more than 20 languages, makes such a deadline a practical imperative.
There is a growing certainty in Europe that we are heading for a demand for an extension and the possibility that it will not arrive in time for the summit has raised the spectre of another emergency summit within days.
“So,” The Irish Times asked the commission official, “your assessment is as follows: ‘there is no light at the end of the non-tunnel’?”
“That’s about it,” came the reply.