Brexit Latest Update
Exhausted diplomats in Brussels have taken to calling this stage of the Brexit negotiations “The Tunnel”.
British and EU officials are negotiating day and night to get to the outline of a Brexit deal by Wednesday.
They need to resolve the final sticking points, notably on customs checks for Northern Ireland, before EU leaders meet to decide on next steps.
Here’s what you need to know to understand an unprecedented divorce battle:
– Two agreements? –
The core of the talks so far have concerned arrangements for Britain’s “orderly” separation from Europe after 40 years of shared trade and laws.
Often called the “divorce agreement”, this text will take the form of a legal treaty and it must be agreed quickly to allow the British and EU parliaments to ratify it.
If it’s not in place and ratified by March 29, Britain will crash out of Europe in a “no deal” Brexit with serious economic and legal consequences.
But there’s also a second text.
The “political declaration” will be much shorter, maybe six or seven pages.
It will not be a legal text, but it could prove politically explosive.
The declaration will outline the parameters of future British relations with Europe, with goals like a free trade pact to be negotiated after Brexit day.
It won’t be binding, but British lawmakers and voters may balk at paying tens of billions of euros in a divorce settlement with no detailed promises on future ties.
– Where are we now? –
EU negotiator Michel Barnier says the Brexit treaty is 80 to 85 percent ready. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney went as high as 90 percent.
Both sides have agreed language on the rights of each others’ citizens on their territory. They have put a number on the huge bill that Britain will pay.
A transition period has been agreed: Britain will apply EU rules and pay into the budget until 2020, while the future relationship is negotiated in more detail.
But you only get to 90 percent of a deal by leaving the hardest stuff until last.
Britain has not yet agreed that the European Court of Justice will have oversight if either side complains about the other breaking the treaty.
And the issue of Northern Ireland’s borders could yet break the deal.
– The Irish problem? –
Both London and Brussels agree that there should be no return to border controls between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.
Closer cross-border ties are a key development underpinning the return to peace since the Good Friday Agreement ended three decades of conflict.
Europe’s preferred solution would be for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU Customs Union after Brexit, and for low-key controls between Britain and the North.
But Ulster unionists, including the small but influential DUP, will reject anything that divides them even symbolically from the core United Kingdom.
And hardline eurosceptic mainland politicians reject the alternative pushed by Prime Minister Theresa May, for all of Britain to remain in the customs union for now.
Europe — while being ready to negotiate a trade deal after the divorce — is wary of London trying to “cherry pick” single market access while rejecting EU rules.
– What’s the answer? –
We will know by Wednesday whether May has decided to take up an invitation to outline any new plans to the other 27 EU leaders at a pre-summit dinner.
One idea that the British press has reported would be to extend the transition period beyond 2020, but it’s not clear whether May’s own party would back that.
Barnier, meanwhile, is insisting his border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK could be “de-dramatised” to the point of near invisibility.
If the negotiators can convince the EU leaders that a deal is imminent, they could call another summit next month to approve the package.
If they can’t, the EU 27 will head back to their capitals to begin planning for a “hard Brexit”.
With just under six months until Brexit day, German business is losing patience with negotiations ahead of a vital deadline, warning ever more stridently of the risks of a no-deal departure.
“Europe must stop a worst-case Brexit scenario,” Joachim Lang, director of the Federation of German Industry (BDI) said Tuesday, warning that “a separation of the UK from the EU without a departure or transitional agreement or clarification of the future relationship is still a possibility.”
At stake for Germany are some 50,000 jobs the BDI says depend directly on business with the UK.
In financial terms, Europe’s largest economy sold 84.4 billion euros ($97.4 billion) of exports to Britain in 2017, making the island nation its fifth-biggest customer, while importing 37.1 billion.
The scale means a no-deal Brexit would be “a disaster that would cause great difficulties for tens of thousands of firms and hundreds of thousands of workers on both sides of the English Channel,” Lang said.
Current talks aim to settle Britain’s divorce issues and agree a “transition phase” to ease its departure by keeping it under EU law through 2020.
But while much is already agreed, negotiations have snagged on thorny issues like the Irish border that allow for little compromise and divide British PM Theresa May’s majority.
An EU leaders’ summit this week has been dubbed a “moment of truth”, as two sets of lawmakers — in Westminster and the European Parliament — must both green-light any deal and will need time to debate it before Brexit day on March 29.
Adding to the pressure, the European Commission said last week it was making plans to cope with a no-deal scenario.
– ‘Will Brits be reasonable?’ –
Businesses on the front line of potential Brexit disruption mostly strike a less alarmist tone than the BDI chief.
“If Britain becomes a ‘third country’ (losing membership of the EU’s single market) it’s not a problem, we already work with 50 third countries,” said Samia Zimmerling, head of export administration at Delta Pronatura — a cleaning products maker with operations in both Germany and the UK.
But she lamented the drawn-out talks, which are delaying concrete adjustments companies must make to any new trade arrangements, like updating complex IT systems.
“We’re waiting every day,” she said. “We don’t have any faith in the British (government), they’re just indecisive.”
Zimmerling and around 200 other businesspeople attended a Wednesday conference organised by Frankfurt’s Chambers of Commerce and Industry (IHK), one of a string of events in economic centres around Germany.
Britain’s departure has special significance for Frankfurt, which is both the centre of the powerhouse “Rhine-Main” region and a financial hub.
Bankers and local politicians hope to attract banking business from London following Brexit, with lobby group Frankfurt Main Finance last week tallying 26 financial firms that will transplant some operations.
But at Wednesday’s meeting, experts from the finance ministry in Berlin and the customs service focused on explaining more prosaic issues to the gathered businesspeople.
Attempting to strike a bright tone and coax the odd laugh from the audience along the way, they delved into how to register for customs software or claim back taxes on goods exported outside the EU.
Higher barriers to trade “wouldn’t be anything new to us as a company, although for me personally, yes,” said Thorsten Neubecker, a 30-year veteran of Germany-UK trucking at transport firm MOL Logistics.
“We’re assuming that there will be this temporary two-year transition period, to give us time” to adapt, he added.
“Whether the Brits will be reasonable, whether Brussels will be, I don’t know, we just have to hope.”
Alexander Schroeer of Cuta Solutions, a firm that advises other companies about international trade, was more pessimistic.
“There’s a political discussion in England that has nothing to do with the agreement itself,” he complained.
“For me it’s clear that there will be a hard Brexit.”
Politics of Brexit
Michel Barnier’s time on the political stage was supposed to be over.
Passed over by his allies in Brussels in a failed audition for Europe’s top role and out of step with his own party in his French homeland, it was time for him to take his bow.
But the 67-year-old former French former minister and former EU commissioner was invited to perform his final encore as Brussels’ chief Brexit negotiator — and he’s winning applause.
The experienced operator has impressed pro-Europeans with his pugnacious defence of the Union’s core interests and won the grudging respect of his British opposite numbers.
He appears to be enjoying the return to the limelight, even though he had nothing to lose when he accepted what seemed a thankless task on October 1, 2016.
A convinced European, he had hoped to take a role in building rather than dismantling the union in March 2014, when he sought the backing the centre-right PPE to become president of the EU Commission.
But his own French conservative party failed to swing behind him, and former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker got the job instead.
Isolated in Brussels, Barnier later hoped to return to his homeland of Savoie in French Alps as president of the regional assembly, but again local barons of his UMP opposed him.
“He embodies Europe — everything our voters don’t want,” one party worthy told colleagues ahead of the 2015 poll, in a conversation overheard by an AFP reporter in Strasbourg.
Friends say these failures left him bitter, but it was Europe that came to the rescue, albeit with a role mitigating what he sees as the “lose-lose” decision of British voters to quit the union.
His former rival Juncker named him a special adviser on defence and security, then handed him the tricky but high-profile task of agreeing divorce terms with the pickly Brits.
Two years later Barnier still hasn’t nailed down the settlement terms, but he’s done well enough that he felt he had to announce he is not seeking PPE support to replace Juncker next year.
Instead he plans to focus on Brexit and might yet find himself in a position to slip into the top job anyway, after staying above the fray of party infighting and the European parliamentary vote in May.
“The PPE was never going to let one of its members sink without trace,” explained one of Barnier’s allies. The Frenchman has been vice-president of the group for 12 years.
In a letter to PPE president Joseph Daul, Barnier said he had a “duty and a responsibility” to see the Brexit negotiations through to the end.
Now, Barnier is a rare European leader known well-enough in Britain to be caricatured by Fleet Street cartoonists and excoriated in euro-sceptic editorials.
But he insists he’s not in it for the knockabout.
“I will do this without aggression and with much respect for a great country that will remain our ally an partner,” he insisted, as he always does, in one of his now regular speeches last week.
– ‘Pragmatic and experienced’ –
When late French leader Charles de Gaulle opposed Britain’s entry into the then European Common Market, Barnier voted in a 1972 French referendum to allow it in.
“I have never regretted that vote because there is strength in unity,” he has repeatedly declared.
British europhobes were always going to scorn a patrician-looking Frenchman and veteran Brussels’ insider, but those who know him best were not outraged by his nomination.
“We could have done a lot worse than the pragmatic and experienced Barnier,” admitted Syed Kamal, head of the British Conservative Party’s group in the European Parliament.
Barnier served variously as France’s environment, European affairs, agriculture and foreign minister — learning the dossiers that now bedevil the complicated break-up talks.
And in Brussels, where he has been commissioner for finance and for the single market, he mastered the arcane mysteries of EU law.
“He knows about the problems we’ll have to negotiate with the British,” Juncker explained.
– Power players –
Britain’s task is a hard one; the unprecedented dissolution of legal, political and trade ties built over four decades after a narrow majority of voters backed an exit rejected by the bulk of the political elite.
But Barnier’s political challenge is almost as complex. He is the Brexit pointman not only for his nominal employer the European Commission, but also for the 27 remaining member states.
The deal will have to be approved not just in Westminster but in the Strasbourg parliament — and by power players like France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Thus far, Barnier has avoided trouble from his own side, “but we’ve often had to realign the talks” sniffs one diplomat.
And the scars from his earlier political battles have not healed, warn others, describing a “tortured” and often bitter personality beneath Barnier’s suave exterior.
But, while Britain has repeatedly changed its own main negotiator, and Prime Minister Theresa May has tried and failed to go above his head directly to fellow national leaders, Barnier has held on.
And if the British leader comes to Brussels this week ready to sign up to a Brexit deal that respects the integrity of Europe’s single market, Barnier will be on stage to take a bow.
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