The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator told the United Kingdom on Wednesday that time was too short to find an alternative to the Irish-border arrangement agreed to in the divorce deal, as London wants, and that this deal was not open for renegotiation.
With only two months left before the United Kingdom is slated by law to leave the European Union, a narrow majority in Parliament instructed British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday to go back to Brussels to revise what is arguably the most intractable part of the deal.
Michel Barnier told France’s RTL radio that two years of divorce negotiations had looked for an alternative to the “Irish backstop,” designed to ensure that the border between EU member Ireland and the U.K. province of Northern Ireland, long a scene of sectarian violence, remains free of border posts.
“No one, on either side, was able to say what arrangement would be needed to ensure controls on goods, animals and merchandise without having a border,” Mr. Barnier said. “We have neither the time, nor the technologies.”
The 11th-hour uncertainty leaves Britain’s investors and allies trying to gauge whether the crisis will end up on March 29 in a deal, a chaotic no-deal Brexit or no Brexit at all.
In essence, Ms. May will use the implicit threat of a no-deal Brexit to seek a deal from the other 27 members of the EU, whose combined economy is about six times the size of United Kingdom’s.
But the European response has been united, and blunt.
“The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation,” European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted in what he said was a message to Ms. May. “Yesterday, we found out what the U.K. doesn’t want. But we still don’t know what the U.K. does want.”
EU officials said Mr. Tusk and Ms. May had 45 minutes of “frank” discussion. Mr. Tusk stressed that it is up to Ms. May to come back to EU with a proposal that she can convince the EU will get a majority in Parliament.
EU leaders in December simply did not believe Ms. May could get a majority if they gave her what she wanted and so they did not budge. For them to move now, she will have to show them that anything they give will be the final deal and it will be accepted.
Ms. May indicated that she understood this but gave no indication of what she might ask for nor of the timeline for her next steps, although she indicated that meetings in Brussels would be useful at some stage, the officials said.
Mr. Tusk made clear that it is up to Britain to come up with solutions, not the EU.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, whose economy stands to suffer most from a no-deal Brexit, said Britain had not offered any feasible way to keep the border open: “What we are being asked to do here is to compromise on a solution that works, and to replace it with wishful thinking.”
And Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told Ms. May by phone that “the latest developments had reinforced the need for a backstop that is legally robust and workable in practice”, an Irish government spokesman said.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the chances of a no-deal exit had increased, and currency traders also took that view as sterling traded around US$1.3070, down more than a U.S. cent from its level before Parliament voted on Tuesday.
EU sources said additional clarifications, statements or assurances on the backstop might be possible, short of reopening the agreement.
But Ms. May says she needs more – a legally binding change. She aims to get Parliament’s approval for a revised deal on Feb. 13. If that fails, Parliament will vote on next steps on Feb. 14.
That deadline ratchets up the pressure on dedicated Brexiteers in the Conservative Party who fear opponents will try to delay and ultimately thwart Britain’s exit. Both Ms. May’s Conservatives and the main opposition Labour Party are formally committed to carrying out Brexit, but internally divided over how or even whether to do so.
Brexiteers accept there is likely to be some short-term economic pain but say Britain will thrive in the long term if cut loose from European rules. Pro-Europeans say Britain’s exit will make it poorer, reduce its global clout, undermine London’s position as a global financial capital and weaken the West.
Britain voted 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum. Brexit supporters say it would betray democracy to fail to act on that mandate. Opponents say voters may have changed their minds now that the details are becoming clearer.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who favours a much closer relationship with the EU, built around a customs union, met Ms. May to discuss Brexit.
“Jeremy made the case for our alternative plan,” the spokesperson said, adding that the tone had been “serious and engaged” and that the two had agreed to meet again.
If Ms. May cannot get a deal done, the default option would be to exit the EU abruptly with no deal at all, which businesses say would cause chaos and disrupt supply chains for basic goods.
“This will hit Britain harder than others,” German Economy Ministry Peter Altmaier said. “The coming days must be used to finally prevent a hard Brexit.”
British lawmakers on Tuesday also approved a proposal urging the government to prevent a no-deal exit, sending a signal that a majority opposes it. However, they rejected two amendments that set out a clear path for Parliament to prevent it.
Many company chiefs are aghast at London’s handling of Brexit and say it has already damaged Britain’s reputation as Europe’s pre-eminent destination for foreign investment.
The investment bank Goldman Sachs raised its probability of a no-deal Brexit to 15 per cent from 10 per cent, kept its probability of a delayed Brexit at 50 per cent, and revised down its probability of no Brexit to 35 per cent from 40 per cent.