POST TIME: 8 May, 2019 00:00 00 AM
The EU won’t change course on Brexit – look at the Greek debt crisis
David Henig

The EU won’t change course on Brexit – look at the Greek debt crisis

The UK’s Brexit debate has restarted after a 10-day break just as before, only with a new end date of October 31. Brexiteers continue to press for the Irish backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements, while the government and the Labour front bench seem to be making little progress in finding a consensus position.

But once again, scant attention is being paid to the other side of the negotiating table. If we look more closely there, we find hardening attitudes across the EU to anything other than the UK leaving on the basis of the withdrawal agreement, regardless of the flaws that have seen this rejected three times by parliament. Just as with the Greek debt crisis, the EU now wants to see proposals adopted, direction set and to deal with the problems later.
This view is laid out bluntly in the European Council conclusions granting the UK an extension: “This extension excludes any reopening of the withdrawal agreement,” it says, in no uncertain terms. That means no change to the Irish backstop, which has been a clear EU red line for some time, but is for the first time laid out here with legal clarity. Any new claims that the EU will replace the backstop with text on alternative arrangements should therefore be treated with extreme scepticism, the EU having gone with the view of the vast majority of customs experts that relying on technology, instead of alignment of tariffs and goods regulations, is not a feasible solution for an international border. This also has impact beyond the Irish border issue: even if the government and opposition agree a position on the future relationship, such as a customs union, this cannot be reflected in the legally binding withdrawal agreement, only in the aspirational political declaration. This has given rise to understandable concerns on the Labour side that any commitments they secure could be undone by a future government.
Further extension?
European Commission negotiators are well aware that refusing to reopen the withdrawal agreement hinders cross-party talks, but are not in much of a mood to help. The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, reinforced the uncompromising message in a pre-Easter interview when he said: “They will have to decide what they want by October, you cannot drag out Brexit for a decade.” While a further extension may be possible, that is a far cry from the situation in March and early April where we could be relatively certain of an extension. Granting the extension until the end of October while sticking to the letter of the withdrawal agreement also has the effect of making the date by which we have agreed future arrangements should be resolved even less realistic. At the moment, the transition period expires at the end of 2020, with an extension of up to two years to be agreed before July 1, 2020. Detailed rules for implementing the Irish backstop are also supposed to be agreed by July 2020.

The writer is director of the UK Trade Policy Project at the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE)