19 September 2019

This week Brexit developments have overall been more of the same. There was some engagement as Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, but not much progress in negotiations on the backstop as the EU still says it is still waiting for “concrete” proposals from the UK. Juncker reiterated this point yesterday, adding that he had no “emotional attachment” to the backstop itself (the fact that the backstop is not liked in the EU either is often forgotten in the UK debate), but that any alternatives must fulfill the same objectives, i.e. avoid a hard border and protect both the single market and the Good Friday Agreement.

There is still a long way to go before reaching an agreement that would be satisfactory for both. Perhaps we will see progress at next week’s UN General Assembly, where Johnson is due to meet EU leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

However, there seems to be some movement on the EU side as they reassess their preferred Brexit outcome. While the EU do not want No Deal, they also do not want the UK to remain. Neither of these scenarios would represent a resolution or a “clean break” in UK-EU relations.

Xavier Bettel, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg who previously said he would welcome another referendum in the UK (presumably with a view to the UK remaining), this week showed that he – like other leaders – is losing patience over the UK’s inability to ratify the deal and leave.

Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne’s warning that the UK should present its proposals by the end of the month or else “it’s over” also sends a clear message that EU27 leaders don’t want to wait until the European Council summit on 17-18 October to discuss a new agreement.

They clearly prefer the UK to leave with a deal, but the best way to reach this is still unclear. There is no guarantee that another Article 50 extension would fundamentally resolve the impasse. Could they be considering other options, such as refusing an extension to force Parliament to make a decision?

Meanwhile, on the UK’s domestic front, the general outline of the next general election has become clearer this week. The Liberal Democrats have come out for revoking Article 50 without a referendum, Labour said they would put their own Brexit deal to a referendum with an option to remain, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) would also support another referendum on EU membership (as well as another on Scottish independence). The Conservatives would campaign to leave, either with a deal or without, and the Brexit Party unambiguously for a No Deal Brexit.

It is unclear what the EU would make of an election that results in a majority for remaining, either with or without a second referendum. It faces a new institutional cycle in November and judging by the pro-integration programme of incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, it has already moved on to its own priorities. At this point many in the EU clearly prefer Brexit to happen, but in order for the UK to leave would a deal, the EU will also have to adopt a more flexible approach.

News in brief

 1. Finnish PM: UK needs to provide plan by end of September

Antti Rinne, the Prime Minister of Finland – which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU – said he and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed that “it is now time for Boris Johnson to produce his own proposals [on alternatives to the backstop] in writing – if they exist. If no proposals are received by the end of September, then it’s over.”

Elsewhere, after his meeting with Boris Johnson in Luxembourg on Monday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he had “no emotional attachment” to the Irish backstop but that its objectives must be fulfilled by “concrete, operational, textual proposals” from the UK side.

The message was reiterated by Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who said, “We in the EU are open to a deal but it must achieve the aims of the backstop through a legally operable solution. We await written proposals from the UK side. We simply haven’t seen any written proposals to date.”

The Government has said it has shared a series of “confidential technical non-papers” about solutions to the backstop impasse with the EU.

2. DUP leader “prepared to be flexible” but rejects backstop

On a visit to Dublin yesterday, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Arlene Foster, said, “We are prepared to be flexible and look at Northern Ireland-specific solutions achieved with the support and consent of the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland,” adding however that the party will not accept any agreement involving the backstop, either UK-wide or NI-only.

3. Corbyn: Labour would put its Brexit deal to a public vote

Ahead of Labour’s party conference beginning later this week, leader Jeremy Corbyn said that if they win a general election, “A Labour government would secure a sensible deal based on the terms we have long advocated, including a new customs union with the EU; a close single market relationship; and guarantees of workers’ rights and environmental protections,” adding that this deal would be put to a public vote alongside the option to Remain.

Elsewhere, at the Liberal Democrats’ party conference, leader Jo Swinson committed to revoking Article 50 without a ‘people’s vote’ if they came to power.

4. UK holds post-Brexit trade talks with Australia, New Zealand, Japan

This week the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss visits New Zealand, Australia and Japan to discuss post-Brexit free trade negotiations, as well the UK potentially joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) agreement.

5. New snap election planned in Spain

Due to acting Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez’s failure to form a new coalition government, the Spanish Parliament will be dissolved on 23 September, ahead of a new vote planned for 10 November – the fourth election in four years. Meanwhile, Austria will hold a general election on 29 September and Poland on 13 October.

Open Europe in the media

Acting Director Stephen Booth writes for ConservativeHome, “It is often argued that a No Deal Brexit does not constitute a ‘clean break’ with the EU because the future UK-EU relationship would still be unresolved. This may be so, but the same is also true of every other outcome. And there are many in the EU that can see this. The question they must ask themselves is what outcome might provide the most stable relationship in the years to come?”

In a piece for the TelegraphDavid Shiels argues, “Forced to make a choice between the three possible Brexit outcomes, the British Parliament may yet decide to accept a deal on the EU’s terms, or to find a way of stopping Brexit altogether. But there is a risk that the EU’s rigidity will lead to the outcome that everyone claims they want to avoid – a No Deal Brexit.”

In a new blogAnna Nadibaidze writes, “The UK and EU have yet to decide the framework for continuing dialogue on foreign policy matters. Would it be a in a bi-annual ministerial forum, or UK representatives invited on an ad-hoc basis? The current Political Declaration provides little clarity, and a No Deal scenario would bring even more uncertainty. Much will depend on the level of trust and both sides’ political ambitions, as they reconsider their roles in the world.”

Read Open Europe’s new briefing looking at unanswered questions for the UK and the EU in terms of post-Brexit security cooperation.