EU to London: Talk it over and get back to us.
That’s the message from EU leaders who Tuesday night watched the Brexit deal painstakingly negotiated with Theresa May’s government go down to a crushing defeat in the House of Commons.
EU leaders in Brussels and capitals across the Continent expressed regret at the result and vowed to step up emergency planning for a no-deal scenario — something the EU is now “fearing more than ever,” according to Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
But the focus, according to senior EU officials, has now shifted to the sequencing laid out by May on Tuesday night in the wake of the historic defeat.
Even as Brexiteers on May’s backbenches were claiming the vote gives her a mandate for new negotiations, she pledged to begin a new dialogue with MPs across the aisle, on a plan that could win the support of the majority of the House. If that results in a softening of May’s red lines, then new possibilities might open up in Brussels.
Assuming May survives a no-confidence vote in her leadership, as she is widely expected to do, Brussels first wants to see what May can achieve.
“Only after that dialogue in the U.K. parliament about where to go from here, only after that can there be a new dialogue with Brussels,” a senior EU official said.
At the European Council summit in December, where May’s request for additional legal assurances was rebuffed, one EU official noted that the European Commission seems to have a more open line of communication to U.K. opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn than she does.
For the other EU leaders, all veterans of legislative battles in their own national parliaments, that lack of communication is a clear signal that May has failed to do the necessary spade work to cobble together a majority behind the deal.
The message from Dublin Wednesday was that that work can only be done in London.
“We should never forget that Brexit is a British policy that originated in Westminster,” said Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister. “After months of negotiation, we found a solution. That solution has now been rejected by Westminster. The problem now lies there.”
“The onus is on Westminster to come up with solutions they can support and that Europe can accept,” he added.
“The ball is in the field of our British friends,” echoed Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party group in the Parliament and the front-runner candidate for Commission president. “Please, please tell us finally: What do you want to achieve?”
But while Brussels isn’t going to offer up any concessions until the U.K. clarifies its position, the EU’s stance is not set in stone. “We have always said that if the United Kingdom were to evolve from its red lines on the customs union and the single market, that the European position could also evolve,” said Varadkar.
At the Commission’s daily midday briefing, chief spokesperson Margaritis Schinas repeated the wait-and-see mantra. “There’s nothing else we can do at this stage,” he said. And while he said the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement would not be renegotiated, there was more flexibility over the Political Declaration document. The idea is not “far from reality,” Schinas said.
Meanwhile, officials said there is no pressure whatsoever on Dublin to give any ground on the “backstop” provision on the Northern Ireland border. Speaking to MEPs, Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans declared the backstop “non-negotiable” — no matter that many British MPs said it was their reason for opposing ratification.
Timmermans led the Commission’s response at the start of a debate Wednesday morning at the plenary of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where he warned that Brexit would be damaging whether there is a deal or not.
“Let’s not create the illusion that this could be a process without harm,” Timmermans said. “Brexit will do harm, to the United Kingdom, to the European Union. It is our collective responsibility to limit that harm as much as possible.”
He again warned MPs in London about expecting to cherry-pick EU benefits. “You can’t honestly say ‘I’m going to leave the European Union but I’m going to take with me everything I like, regardless of what that does to the European Union.’”
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In closing, Timmermans turned to an oracle of political wisdom — the Rolling Stones. “You can’t always get what you want,” he said, “but if you try sometimes you might get what you need.”
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