Friday, March 22, 2019

The EU's mask of unity is finally cracking as member states scramble to avoid no-deal

Published by The Telegraph

For the first time since the start of Brexit negotiations, we could witness real divisions within the EU27 front. Apparently, German Angela Merkel even accused EU Council chairman Donald Tusk of lack of preparedness, as the discussions at last night’s summit were described as “feisty” by one diplomat.

It’s not all that surprising that the cracks are only starting to show now. Previously, there really wasn’t all that much for the EU27 to disagree upon, as they have been largely preoccupied with issues related to the divorce with the UK, not the future relationship.

It was easy to agree how much money to ask from Britain – as much as possible – and whether the rights of EU citizens in the UK should be protected – of course. The UK also generously agreed to a temporary “transition period”, during which it would hand over control of its trade policy to Brussels, in return for undisrupted market access. There’s nothing in all of that for the EU27 to disagree about.

But now EU27 leaders are at odds over how to respond to Theresa May's failure to pass her draft Withdrawal Agreement.

Apparently, France, Belgium and Spain are in the hawkish camp, while Germany, the Netherlands and most certainly Poland are in the dovish camp, with the latter having last night pushed for no date or conditions on extension.

Charles Michel, the caretaker Prime Minister of Belgium, which would be hit terribly by “no deal”, doubled down on French President Emmanuel Macron’s tough line that it may be better for the UK to “just leave”.

Macron folded, to the surprise of diplomats, dropping previous French demands for strict conditions on any decision, after he also declared that Britain should leave by April 11. No deal was taken off the table and now, the UK will still be able to choose between a deal, no deal, a long extension or revoking Article 50, if Parliament rejects the deal next week.

Macron backtracked after he had been countered by Merkel. She reportedly called a “no deal” Brexit irresponsible and would have also lashed out at Tusk, telling him not to interrupt her, stating: “even if you don’t need the UK, we [the EU] need them”. The mood is clearly getting a bit nervous on the EU27 side.

Importantly, Merkel also reminded Ireland of the difficulties of maintaining an open border with Northern Ireland in case of no deal and called upon EU Brexit negotiatior Michel Barnier to explore a fallback plan to uphold the Good Friday Agreement.

This cracking of EU unity offers a flavour of what may be to come. In any trade negotiation conducted by the EU, there is a protectionist camp and a non-protectionist camp, so we will a see real divisions when the big EU-UK trade negotiation begins. And no doubt in the case of a no deal,  EU countries will be falling over each other to limit the damage through bilateral deals. National agendas still trump EU unity in other words. We have just seen the first glimpses of that.

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