While the UK is obsessed with the daily melodramas of political meltdown over Brexit, the rest of Europe is looking on with amazement, alarm and an increasing sense of dread. The fear of deadlock at Westminster, and a no-deal Brexit, is growing.
Not that there is any profound sense of surprise. It has looked likely for months that the UK and EU negotiators would eventually succeed in cobbling together some sort of compromise on the withdrawal agreement – and that it might still fail to gain the backing of the UK parliament. Yet in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and the other EU capitals, there was always a lingering hope that a typical bureaucratic fudge might be enough to break the deadlock and deliver the Brexit that the UK government had embraced.
They still sort of believe that. German chancellor Angela Merkel, embattled at home but still respected abroad, was first out of the blocks, welcoming the agreement and firmly dismissing any suggestion of continuing to negotiate: ‘For me the question of further negotiations does not arise at all,’ she said. Now there is a document on the table, it is in the DNA of all EU members to make every effort to see it approved.
But Merkel also made it clear that the 27 all have to agree the details themselves before it is finalised: ‘We now need to check from the EU27 point of view that it can be signed off. We have a high degree of trust in Michel Barnier, but we need to analyse the document and discuss it with our parliaments.’
Hopes of hardline Tory Brexiters, and the Labour party leadership, for a substantial renegotiation of the entire document are not given serious credence in EU capitals. The moment the withdrawal agreement is reopened by anyone, all sorts of national demands may be revived that have been successfully suppressed to date. The 27 are already exhausted and dismayed by the exercise to date – although most of the heavy lifting has been done by Barnier’s team. They want to move on. But they are appalled at the prospect of no deal.
Officials in Berlin admit to a growing sense of ‘panic’ in the German business community at a failure to seal a deal. But it has not yet changed the widely-held view that a worse outcome would be one that undermines the EU single market, and allows the Brits to cherry-pick the bits they want.
The only likely moves to come from the 27 would be ones that make the deal even harder for May’s Brexiter backbenchers to swallow. Tougher language on fisheries is one possibility, demanding continuing access for EU boats to UK waters in line with the current quota-sharing. France, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands are all worried at UK ambitions to banish all trace of the Common Fisheries Policy.
Traditional friends of the UK, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, are also determined to ensure that the single market remains a ‘level playing field’. That is why the Irish backstop agreement requires the UK to comply with EU regulations on the environment, labour, competition and state aids, and taxation, for the foreseeable future – until some other trade deal has been agreed that will probably include the same requirements. The question of a ‘level playing field’ is not just a commercial one, says a senior German politician. It is a ‘moral’ one, too.
The remarkable thing about the Brexit negotiations from the start has been the success of the EU27 in maintaining a common front in spite of their deep political differences (think Hungary and Poland v. the rest), while the UK has been unable to agree on a common position even in the cabinet. EU solidarity has surprised even those promoting it. But then, in the words of one wise old German diplomat, ‘the Brits never understood that preserving EU unity is in itself a fundamental priority. That is where we differ.’
Most importantly, the solidarity of the EU side with Ireland has been pretty well unshakeable. To be sure, there is grumbling about being held hostage by the politics of ‘a tiny country in the far northwest’. But there is widespread agreement that Brexit cannot be allowed destabilise the Northern Irish peace process, and an acceptance that the EU must defend the rights of its smallest members, as well as the big ones.
But what if the deal does fail the final hurdle in the UK parliament? What about a People’s Vote to break the deadlock and potentially to exit from Brexit and remain in the EU after all?
In principle, most member states would be delighted. In practice, there is more than a little nervousness about the idea of another referendum in the UK, or at least about its timing. The fear that an unresolved Brexit will hang over the European elections next May is real. It could boost the vote for Eurosceptic parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National, or the Alternative für Deutschland, or indeed the populist parties in Italy. So the mainstream pro-EU parties are very keen to see it held quickly.
So if the UK were to ask for more time, and therefore an extension of the Article 50 timetable, would they get it? The 27 must vote unanimously to agree. If they don’t, a UK exit next 29 March becomes unstoppable under the Article 50 wording.
The word from Brussels is pretty clear: an extension to allow for a UK election, or for a referendum, would be possible. An extension to give the government and the Conservative party more time to solve their own squabbles would be much less likely. Donald Tusk, at least, offers a hopeful message. The EU is prepared for a deal. It is preparing for no deal, with a heavy heart. But it is best prepared of all for no Brexit.
Quentin Peel is Associate Fellow in the Europe Programme at Chatham House. He had an extensive career at the Financial Times, including as European Community correspondent, Brussels bureau chief, Berlin chief correspondent and foreign editor and international affairs editor.