EU summit agrees Brexit deal and warns it is not open for renegotiation
Alternative to non-negotiable agreement is ‘no-deal, cliff-edge Brexit’, Taoiseach says
European Council president Donald Tusk and British prime minister Theresa May at the summit in Brussels on Sunday. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA
This is as good as it gets, the UK was told. European Union leaders at their Brussels summit on Sunday endorsed the Brexit deal – the withdrawal agreement and a political declaration on the future EU-UK relationship – that has taken close to two years to negotiate. And in one voice they warned that it was not up for renegotiation.
They instructed the European Commission to make the necessary preparations to ensure the orderly departure of the UK on March 29th next.
Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker addressed the central question that hovered unspoken over the meeting and was the preoccupation of journalists: “If the House of Commons turned down the deal, would Brussels be ready to amend the agreement?
“This is the only deal possible,” he warned. “Those who imagine otherwise will be disappointed.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar joined the chorus, telling journalists after the meeting: “The idea that something else can be negotiated just doesn’t add up . . . The alternative is a no-deal, cliff-edge Brexit.”
As the Taoiseach acknowledged of a summit designed to bolster the chances of British prime minister Theresa May winning over a majority of MPs, the leaders also made a “conscious decision not to discuss ‘what happens if?’”.
The other recurring theme on Sunday was, in a similarly supportive vein, repeated expressions of sadness at the British departure.
German chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters the Brexit deal was a “diplomatic piece of art”. But, she said, “it’s a historic day, which triggers very ambivalent feelings . . . it is tragic that the UK is leaving the EU now after 45 years, but we have to, of course, respect the vote of the British people.”
European Council president Donald Tusk, channelling his inner Freddie Mercury, said: “Regardless of how it will all end, one thing is certain: we will remain friends until the end of days, and one day longer”.
The meeting was brief. Following short initial interventions by Tusk, Juncker and chief negotiator Michel Barnier, Tusk asked if the leaders would accept the text without discussion. They did and, according to a senior EU official, agreement to the withdrawal treaty and political declaration took “a matter of seconds”.
A number of states spoke up before May joined them and she was followed by others, mostly expressing regret and sadness at the UK departure, a desire to forge as close a relationship with the UK following Brexit as possible, and wishing her good luck.
The meeting also agreed a number of statements for the minutes, most notably on Gibraltar. “With the departure of the UK. we all lose, especially the UK,” a jubilant Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez told reporters after the meeting. “But in relation with Gibraltar, Spain wins, and Europe wins.”
It was an interpretation that was not shared by officials, who described the language agreed on Gibraltar as reflecting the status quo.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, emphasised another agreed minute which addressed French and other concerns including about the UK’s all-UK customs union backstop. It must take account, they agreed, of level-playing-field concerns on trade, the need for an agreement on access to UK fishing grounds by EU boats, and a respect for EU decision-making autonomy.
He hinted that the French might hold up an extension of the UK’s transition period if access to UK fishing waters was not granted.
But Macron was also looking to the future. The EU must “learn lessons” from Britain’s decision to leave it, he said, adding that the exit of a major member state for the first time in its history would affect the bloc’s equilibrium and functioning.
“It is too early to say how, but we have to learn the lessons, we have to understand that the EU is fragile, that its survival is not a given, and so have to defend it,” he said. “Brexit has demonstrated what is of value in the union. Our union must be reinvented to better reflect our people and their aspirations. This project of reinvention must be at the union’s heart.”
Determined not to allow the union and its agenda be defined by Brexit, EU leaders will next June, post-Brexit, adopt what Macron and others hope will be an ambitious and visionary strategic five-year agenda.