Now that the House of Commons wants the Prime Minister to renegotiate the Irish border, Europe realizes: they have also lost her permanently.
One day after the umpteenth turn in the British House of Commons, Tuesday, there is no one in Brussels who thinks that the chance of an orderly Brexit has now increased. On the contrary, the European Union is increasingly anxious that the departure of the British from the EU in 57 days will be accompanied by an inevitable hard blow, chaos and damage.
In the Commission and in the Member States, Wednesday did not go to the British in their meetings on handouts. They were working on No Deal. From rules to continue paying Erasmus students after 29 March, to requests to the UK government to pay the outstanding accounts for 2019: indicate before 18 April.
“In the meantime, I have sent teams to all member states to prepare No Deal,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday. Still no one wants a hard Brexit, because of the damage to citizens, companies and mutual relations. But what is the EU doing differently – that is the vote.
There is even an escalation. “This is a serious moment,” EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier reacted to the latest developments in London on Wednesday in the European Parliament. He sounded dramatic and even offended for his calmness: “They want to blame us for everything.” Black pockering about the failure seems to have begun.
Where is the pain? After the votes in the House of Commons, the British Prime Minister Theresa May still wants her agreement with the EU on a guarantee that there will not be a hard line between Ireland and Northern Ireland. In the EU this not only counts as a hopeless task – for months she no longer hears this – but also as a break. “For the first time, May has openly pleaded for the reopening of the retirement agreement,” Barnier said bitterly on Wednesday. “She has distanced herself from the agreement that she herself negotiated.”
At the last EU summit on Brexit, in December, May received the benefit of the doubt from other EU leaders. However, some were annoyed by the “robotic” way in which they asked for help about the backstop, without saying which help exactly. Now the EU is not only losing the British Parliament, but also May.
Meanwhile, the British have not come any closer. “We still do not know what the House of Commons is actually up to”, Juncker said. Talking about the backstop, the guarantee against a hard limit on the Irish island, is “not a game”, he warned. And it is not only a problem between Ireland and Northern Ireland: “This touches the core of what it means to be a member of the European Union.”
European care is not just about the chance of flaring violence at the borders of the EU. “A return to dark times”, according to Juncker. Leaving the backstop also means tinkering with the internal market. And that is, underlined Barnier Wednesday, playing with the future of the EU. “We will never do that.”
There is a lot of frustration among member states and within the European institutions that the British are becoming insensitive to this vital importance of the EU. This increases solidarity with Ireland, the EU member state that is most affected by the British Brexit approach.
The Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, immediately after the vote in the House of Commons announced that he did not want any new negotiations on the backstop. He received support everywhere. “Germany and the whole EU are on the backstop next to Ireland,” the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas twittered Wednesday. It was a message to Poland, which recently hinted at a gesture to the British. But also a sign for May: in any case, it will first have to convince the Irish.
In any case, in Brussels it is excluded that the exit agreement will be changed, as the British want. The fear is that this amounts to the opening of Pandora’s box. Other countries can then also set new requirements.
The EU only wants to talk about changes to the political declaration of intent that accompanies the exit agreement. At the same time, skepticism is also great about this: ironically, it states that the EU is prepared to adopt “alternative arrangements” for the backstop.
The problem is that these alternatives are “non-existent” for the time being, said EU top negotiator Sabine Weyand on Monday. All possibilities that do exist have already been extensively discussed in the negotiations. The outcome of this was the backstop as it now stands in the agreement. And it was designed exactly as the British wanted. Why would a subsequent adaptation work?