EU prepares Brexit war plan for weeks ahead as uncertainty grows

Michel Barnier, the European Chief Negotiator for the United Kingdom Exiting the European Union, and European Union Council President Donald Tusk conclude a press conference, where a draft Brexit withdrawal agreement was handed over, in Brussels, Belgium, 15 November 2018. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

After 17 months of negotiations, with less than 140 days before the UK is officially set to exit the EU, Brussels and London reached an agreement late Wednesday (14 November) on the terms of their divorce. However, the work is far from complete. Below is an overview of the next steps leading to the UK’s withdrawal.

“Tonight, in my responsibility as the EU negotiator, I consider that we have achieved decisive progress,” Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator told a full press room late on Wednesday night after British PM Theresa May won the green light of her cabinet for the draft deal.

Earlier on Wednesday afternoon, ambassadors of the EU 27 convened for a meeting in Brussels. Although they were not allowed to check the actual text, they did not oppose sealing the draft agreement.

But May’s cabinet began to crumble the very next morning as four members resigned, including the Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab.

Neither the EU nor British diplomats officially commented on how this could affect the deal but the Commission insisted that it was reached between negotiators and that the British PM is their main interlocutor in these talks.

The 585-page draft Brexit agreement in a nutshell

The European Union has published on Wednesday (14 November) the 585-page draft Brexit deal aimed at ensuring a smooth divorce next March and outlining a transition period for both sides to adjust to the break.

The ratification process within the EU

On Thursday morning, following May’s cabinet approval, Barnier handed the 585-page document to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, who agreed to call an extraordinary European Council on Sunday, 25 November at 9:30 in Brussels, to stamp the deal, “if nothing extraordinary happens.”

In the next 48 hours, the member states will analyse the text and the EU27 ambassadors will meet on Friday to discuss the Commission’s mandate for negotiating the next step: the EU’s future relations with the UK.

“I hope that there will not be too many comments,” Tusk underlined while presenting the updated EU roadmap.

The aim is also to finalise the Joint Political Declaration, a separate document about future relations.

The Commission intends to agree on the declaration about the future with the UK by Tuesday (20 November), and the General Affairs Council – in which 27 European Affairs ministers are represented – will meet to prepare the 25 November summit.

If all goes as planned, the Council should express its agreement by signing off on the text. So far, several member states have been cautious in their assessment of the deal and remain in the wait-and-see mode.

“This Brexit Deal is an important step forward but… we’re not there yet. We will now analyse the texts carefully in order to check their compatibility with our European values,” said the Prime Minister of Belgium, Charles Michel. His Finnish counterpart, Juha Sipilä warned that “final decisions are still needed on both sides”.

The European Parliament needs to give its consent as well.

In a press point organised in Strasbourg, the Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt laid out the shape of the agenda for the chamber in the upcoming weeks.

“The European Parliament will present a resolution to the plenary with a detailed assessment of the draft agreement, and secondly our proposals of the future relationship. In the December session, we will propose an in-depth resolution to the plenary.”

He indicated that the Parliament’s final say is planned at the start of the next year, once the official documents have been received.

The chamber will draft a resolution assessing the text of the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the future relationship. An in-depth declaration will be presented in December and the plenary will vote on the final deal early next year.

“We will send proposals from the European Parliament to Michel Barnier. For us, it is important that there can be absolutely no question of cherry-picking in the future relationship,” Verhofstadt said after meeting the EU’s chief negotiator.

Other options also on the table

Meanwhile, on 27 November, the European Court of Justice is scheduled to hold a hearing on whether EU law allows the British Parliament to unilaterally change its mind on Brexit.

Scottish MPs filed a petition with Scotland’s Court of Session last year to show that Britain has a unilateral option of staying in the world’s biggest trading bloc, once the outcome of Brexit is known.

They argue that while there is no legal doubt that Britain could stop Brexit with the permission of the other 27 EU member states, it should seek to establish a legal right to do so unilaterally, whether the rest of the bloc likes it or not.

“The fact that the hearing is taking place despite the current circumstances shows the determination of the ECJ to establish a workable legal base,” a source close to the case told EURACTIV.

Because no member state has ever attempted to leave the EU, the exact interpretation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which regulates withdrawal from the bloc, is untested.

May’s domestic headaches

Theresa May has seen four of the members of her cabinets resign over the past few hours and more could follow, including members of her negotiating team. Furthermore, rumours of a possible confidence vote next Tuesday keep flying around.

The British Prime Minister has defended the agreement with the EU in Westminster by warning that it was this deal, no deal or no Brexit at all. However, she might need more than threats to get the votes she needs to pass the text.

The Conservatives have 315 seats in the Parliament, which does not give them the majority to approve the text. Moreover, the deal is likely to be rejected by some in May’s own party, the Unionist of the DUP and the opposition Labour.

It is unclear will happen if the Parliament does not back the agreement. EU sources underlined that “both sides have exhausted our margin of manoeuvre under our respective mandates” and therefore, “If someone wishes for changes they also have to take responsibility for them.”

“This is the best we could achieve collectively with the constraints both sides have,” the same source stressed.

Going back to the negotiating table seems unlikely for the moment, but is not excluded. The feared no-deal scenario or even a second referendum could be other options.

“There is no plan B,” a diplomatic source said on May’s cabinet crisis. “If the government fall and we cannot hold a European Council to sign the agreement or the House of Commons does not ratify it, we enter into a very serious crisis.”

Open for discussion

Although the text is a complex and comprehensive document, some sensitive issues still remain to be discussed before the agreement is fully finalised.

“I know that the road is still long and can be difficult to ensure an orderly withdrawal and, beyond, build an ambitious and sustainable partnership with the UK,” Barnier underlined.

For instance, how long the transition period can be extended is still a mystery but both parties admit they need a figure before the European Council can give its consent.

“It is for the negotiators to fill it in,” EU sources pointed out.

Several provisions related to the functioning of the Irish border backstop, the transition period or the arbitration panel that will govern the treaty will need further work too. But the future relationship between both parties remains the main issue to be discussed.

May wins narrow cabinet backing for Brexit deal

British Prime Minister Theresa May narrowly won the support of her cabinet for a draft divorce deal with the EU on Wednesday night (14 November), making yet another unexpected breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations.

The negotiation of the future relations will be based on the withdrawal agreement but will not be easy.

In this case, EU sourced pointed out, “the pressure on the negotiators of the future agreement will be a lot higher and all the work we have been doing will be extremely useful.”

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