EU officials have expressed concern that British MPs’ alternative plans for Brexit are detached from reality and fail to acknowledge the basic choice between approving Theresa May’s exit treaty and remaining in the union for much longer.
MPs are set to vote on rival options to Mrs May’s overall deal on Monday, including softer variants on Brexit and a “confirmatory referendum”. But there is concern in EU capitals that the leading options do not take account of Britain’s position less than two weeks before the UK’s scheduled April 12 exit from the bloc.
In particular, EU officials insist that the exit treaty negotiated with the UK prime minister is non-negotiable and that the rival plans would not excuse Britain from taking part in elections to the European Parliament scheduled for May 23-26.
“The discussion in London seems as always a bit detached from how the reality looks in EU27 capitals,” one official said. “The withdrawal agreement is closed. Time is running out.”
The official added that if Britain wanted to pursue Brexit — rather than revoke the Article 50 exit process altogether — there were only two options: “Either the UK asks for an extension beyond May 22, in which case it must participate in the European Parliament elections, or it must adopt the withdrawal agreement.”
While Emily Thornberry, the foreign affairs spokesman of the UK opposition Labour party, suggested on Sunday that a “side protocol” could allow the UK to sidestep the European elections if it was still in the bloc, Jean-Claude Piris, a former senior EU lawyer, emphasised on Twitter that the EU had taken a final decision on the matter “which has been formally accepted by the UK government”.
The UK’s adoption of the withdrawal agreement is the EU’s priority, since it is the only treaty that would be in force between the bloc and Britain on Brexit day and would ensure no cliff edge for citizens and businesses.
By contrast, Brussels has repeatedly stressed it is ready to revise the political declaration on future EU-UK relations that forms the other part of Mrs May’s deal.
This exists largely to provide assurances to Britain about the shape of the UK’s future relations with the bloc, including plans for a comprehensive trade deal. Unlike the withdrawal agreement it is not a legally binding document.
EU officials stress that, even as written now, the declaration’s text does not rule out a customs union, although capitals are willing to amend it if it helps to get the withdrawal agreement adopted.
The document could be redrafted to reflect a British decision to seek a permanent customs union with the EU, or a closer relationship with the single market.
That flexibility is likely to include granting any UK request for a long extension so long as EU election participation is assured and Mrs May can explain how Britain plans to overcome its political impasse.
One EU diplomat said that the declaration could be altered “very quickly”, adding that it “could be expected” that EU leaders would agree a further Brexit delay to May 22 if a majority in the House of Commons backed a deal revised on such lines.
Leaders “are really willing to go very far to help the UK provided that it doesn’t call into question the core functioning of the EU,” said one official.
Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has emphasised that the EU should make sure that every other option has been exhausted before accepting a no-deal Brexit.
But, anticipating an emergency April 10 summit on Brexit called by Donald Tusk, European Council president, one official said some leaders would ask whether a lengthy delay “will bring us to a better place or would we simply be importing these problems for another year?”
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, warned ambassadors last week that a long extension would challenge the EU’s principle of strict sequencing of Brexit talks.