A CLUE TO Theresa May’s Brexit tactics is her insistence that she is not running down the clock. For she is doing exactly that. This week she asked MPs for two more weeks to negotiate. Another vote on her Brexit deal may not be held before late March. That makes the EU summit on March 21st and 22nd the time for last-minute concessions—just a week before Brexit is due on March 29th. Amazingly, with more Commons votes due as we went to press, MPs now seem ready to wait until February 27th before trying again to stop a no-deal Brexit.
In Brussels the mood is bleak. Hopes of a Brexit reversal have faded. Yet diplomats cannot envisage substantive changes to the Irish “backstop” to avert a hard border by keeping Britain in a customs union, a main cause of MPs’ rejection of the deal last month. The withdrawal agreement that includes the backstop cannot be amended to include a time limit or an exit clause without undermining its purpose. Nobody wants to abandon Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach. And after the past three months, trust in Mrs May has gone, making the backstop more needed than ever.
The EU sees no parallel with changes made to secure ratification of earlier rejected treaties. In the Brexit deal it offers many concessions, including a backstop crafted to meet Britain’s own red lines. It is easier to concede to a member than a non-member. Moreover, the scale of Mrs May’s defeat makes it hard to credit assurances that minor tweaks could win over enough MPs.
Yet nobody wants no deal, which is the default option. British businessfolk echo most MPs in fearing the economic impact. The Germans, French and Dutch fret about it hitting at a moment when the euro zone is weak. Ireland might be devastated and have to impose border controls—though Mr Varadkar’s political position would be worse still if he made concessions on the backstop. And a no-deal Brexit could create a blame game and possible trade war that made it far harder to resume negotiations, (which would have to be on a different legal basis to the Article 50 withdrawal ones) than those Brexiteers who talk breezily of a “managed no deal” realise.
There are two silver linings to these stormclouds. One is that the EU is ready to offer a renewed commitment that the backstop would be only temporary. It may even give this legal force through a codicil to the withdrawal agreement. The aim on all sides is to find a form of words with enough legal clout to persuade Geoffrey Cox, Britain’s attorney-general, to assure MPs that the risk of being stuck in the backstop is smaller than he feared.
The second silver lining is growing acceptance that more time is needed. This would be true even if MPs approved a deal, as passing the necessary laws would take several weeks. Some in the EU have doubts about giving Mrs May more time purely for internal debate, but they know they cannot realistically refuse it. What is less certain is how long any extension to Article 50, which requires unanimous approval, should be. Mrs May’s adviser, Olly Robbins, was this week overheard talking of a “long” extension. Yet most officials reckon it should be no more than three months, keeping Brexit out of this summer’s European elections.
Mrs May’s brinkmanship could yet persuade enough waverers in Parliament that it really is her deal or no deal. But there is a clear risk that it won’t. Two senior EU diplomats say they are betting on no deal—but at the end of June, not the end of March.