Robert Harneis –TDO- (FRANCE)- Speaking in London yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May said Brexit negotiations ‘are now in the endgame,’ adding, ‘We are working extremely hard, through the night, to make progress on the remaining issues in the withdrawal agreement, which are significant.’ Acknowledging pressure from her ministers and party members, she added that she ‘will not compromise on what people voted for in the referendum. This will not be an agreement at any cost.’
The Financial Times yesterday reported that the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told the EU27 European affairs ministers at the General Affairs Council meeting that the main elements of a UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement text are almost ready and that they will soon be presented to the UK cabinet. The paper cites unnamed officials reporting Barnier as saying, ‘As of this moment, this agreement is still not reached. As in any negotiation, the final stretch is always the most difficult. On the basis of our common efforts, the parameters of a possible Agreement are very largely defined… We are at an extremely sensitive moment. The smallest public comment from my side could be exploited by those who want the negotiation to fail.’
Meanwhile, a European Council statement said that Barnier ‘explained that intense negotiating efforts continue, but an agreement has not been reached yet. Some key issues remain under discussion, in particular a solution to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland,’ adding, ‘During the meeting, ministers however also recalled the need to continue the work at all levels on preparations for every possible scenario.’ This comes as Barnier will today attend the meeting of the EU’s College of Commissioners to give an update on the state of Brexit negotiations.
Separately, a Downing Street spokesperson said, ‘We have made good progress in the negotiations in relation to the Withdrawal Agreement but there are substantial issues still to be overcome in relation to the Northern Irish backstop. That remains the case. The talks are ongoing,’ adding, ‘We want to make progress as quickly as possible in these negotiations but we have also said that it cannot be at any cost. That remains the position.’ According to the Daily Telegraph, the Cabinet is not discussing a proposed Brexit deal today.
The British government has had to negotiate on two fronts, both with the EU and with members of parliament who have differing views on what the aims of the agreement should be. Having a Prime Minister, who voted to remain, negotiating an agreement to leave has not helped, particularly as she is surrounded by senior civil servants widely thought to be Remainers. The loss of her overall majority in the General Election of June 2017 has limited her room for maneuver as she has had to depend on the votes of the Northern Irish DUP party who have strong views on any Irish border settlement. On the other hand, it has strengthened her position because all of her party members were elected as supporting Brexit and it will be difficult for them to oppose it, now whatever their private views.
The EU has also had great difficulties during the negotiations. Despite regular claims to the contrary, members are not united on what the terms of the agreement should be. Portugal, for example, has recently threatened to negotiate separately with the UK if a reasonable agreement is not soon reached. It has also become clear that the interests of the Commission are not necessarily the same as member states. Michel Barnier has successfully concentrated media attention on the problems that the UK might face in the event of no deal. He has done this to weaken Mrs. May’s position. However, the enormous problems that no deal would create for the EU are gradually emerging. Who is going to make up the loss of the net British contribution of 10 billion euros? German Member of the European Parliament Hans-Olaf Henkel, a leading industrialist, has pointed out that Britain leaving is a disaster for the EU as the UK carries the same economic weight as 19 small members all leaving at once. In October he accused the European bureaucrats of ‘masochism’ saying ’slowly and very late the Europeans are realizing that in trying to punish Britain, they are punishing themselves’.
The UK has received some heavyweight last-minute support as twelve World Trade Organization member states have urged the EU to provide ‘appropriate compensation’ if ‘the quality and level of access currently enjoyed to the EU’ is not maintained following the UK’s withdrawal. The document, signed by members including China and the US, also calls for the EU to ‘provide clarity on how it intends to account for UK-EU trade’ post-Brexit. It notes that changes stemming from the UK’s exit are of ‘general and systemic interest to the WTO membership’ given their ‘unprecedented scale and scope.’
The EU position has not been strengthened bay poor economic performance and a series of crises with other member states notably Poland, Hungary and above all founder member and third biggest economy Italy.