The only way forward on Brexit involves a UK repudiation of its red lines
Analysis: Barnier says if UK is willing to go back on its red lines the EU would be prepared to look again at its own position
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, speaking at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, during the debate on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Photograph: EPA/Patrick Seeger
There’s a terrible feeling of deja vu. Once again we are faced with the inescapable reality that the only way forward on Brexit involves a UK repudiation of its red lines, specifically membership of the customs union and a strong association with the single market.
This is where we were a year ago, when the issue was how to protect the integrity of the single market while maintaining a soft border in Ireland. May did not blink, and the result was the ungainly compromise that is the backstop.
Now the question is how can she build an alliance for any deal that will get a majority in the Commons? That will mean, observers say, her tacking towards the Remainer/soft Brexit MPs, like those in Labour who might – and the numbers are still unclear – back a deal along the lines of so-called Norway-plus. It would involve a repudiation of those red lines.
Speaking to MEPs on Wednesday, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said that if the UK was willing to go back on its red lines the EU would be prepared to look again at its own position. It is a line he has reiterated for months and is reflected in the political declaration’s “evolutionary” clause.
One member state diplomat made clear that tinkering with the deal language would not be enough. The EU would expect radical proposals from London, and proposals which do not in any way put in question withdrawal agreement commitments, notably the backstop.
There is a view, however, that a Norway-plus deal might make the backstop clause redundant, and thus less of a problem (although EU officials insist it would have to remain part of the treaty).
Whether May is brave and pragmatic enough to be willing to go there is the great imponderable. But on Wednesday in Strasbourg and Brussels, EU officials were carefully opening the door for her to venture down this path.
A commission spokesman said rather pointedly that the withdrawal agreement was not up for any renegotiation. Did that mean the political declaration is amendable, a journalist asked? “Your understanding might not be far from reality,” he was told coyly.
The request would have to come from London, however. As would any request for an extension of the negotiating time under article 50, “setting out the reasons for an extension”, a strong hint that such a request would not be met unconditionally.
Diplomats from the EU27 were suggesting that London would have to be able to assure them that more time would produce a definitive result. Given May’s loss of control of the Commons, that may not be an easy assurance to give.
One diplomat even asked rhetorically whether the EU should now be negotiating with the Commons rather than the government. For EU leaders that is not a frivolous point – how can you talk to an interlocutor who can give no guarantees that what is conceded will run?