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Eye on France: Brussels bets on no-deal Brexit

UK Prime Minister Theresa May talking about Brexit in the House of Commons last week.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May talking about Brexit in the House of Commons last week. UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS

With less than two months to go to Brexit, Brussels seems to have accepted the idea that no deal will be reached before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.


That, according to centrist daily Le Monde, is bad news, but it’s looking more and more likely.

The situation comes as a major surprise following, as it does, 17 months of negotiations and the so-called “final agreement” signed by Europe and British Prime Minister, Theresa May, last November.

Unfortunately, May was not able to convince her Conservative colleagues in the House of Commons to agree with the rest of Europe.

Since then, the British leader has survived a confidence vote but has failed to make any fundamental changes to the divorce document.

Europe determined not to give an inch

Le Monde says the 27 other member nations now seem determined not to budge a further centimetre, leaving May with a deal which she can’t sell at home and can’t change in Brussels.

The topics of discord are many and various. But the crucial question seems to be what to do about the border between the Republic of Ireland, which is staying in Europe, and Northern Ireland, which is leaving.

Theresa May has assured the European partners that there is an alternative to a return of the customs barrier separating the two parts of Ireland. But the chief EU negotiator, Michael Barnier, says his teams have spent months looking at various ways of preserving the 1998 Good Friday Agreement without a return of the border, and have found nothing that works.

Either Northern Ireland accepts special customs status within the European Union, something which the loyalist community refuses, or the frontier between north and south will become a smuggler’s dream as goods and farm animals are shifted in whichever direction pays the highest subsidies, or levies the lowest taxes.

Who's going to blink first?

The attitude in London seems to be based on the conviction that Europe has always allowed negotiations to tick down to the final seconds before finally agreeing to propositions which were previously dubbed impossible. As recently as this weekend, David Davis, who used to be the UK’s top divorce negotiator, claimed that Europe is capable of hanging on to the last minute and, if necessary, of stopping the clocks.

Le Monde accepts that the European Union has already skirted the abyss, notably in negotiations with Athens at the height of the eurozone monetary crisis. But this, the centrist paper assures us, is a very different ball game. In fact, says Le Monde, the real risk for Europe would be to concede too much to the departing Brits.

And that brings us back to the Irish border and the future of the single market. If you can stay outside the EU and still have insider access to the continental market, then the future of that market is going to be compromised.

May remains convinced that she can deliver, on time

Which is why Brussels and the other European capitals are so busily preparing for a “no-deal” future. The dominant opinion in Europe seems to be that, since London has so much more to lose, Theresa May will finally be the one to make the crucial concessions.

Yesterday, the British premier was assuring anyone who’d listen to her that she would negotiate a departure deal before the 29 March deadline. She says there’ll be no extra time, that a “pragmatic solution” can be found, that Europe can be brought into line with Tory demands. Very few people share that optimism.

Many European leaders, notably German chancellor Angela Merkel, seem to favour an extension of the negotiations, at least until after the European elections at the end of May. But the crucial question then becomes what such an extension will change ... the Irish border won’t go away or become any less of an obstacle in six months, or indeed, in six years. And businesses are already loudly complaining about the negative impact of the on-going uncertainty on such factors as investment.

The Japanese motor company Nissan yesterday announced that will not be proceeding with a project to produce its X-Trail range of vehicles in the north-eastern city of Sunderland, citing uncertainty associated with Brexit as the main reason for that decision.

The British car industry saw overall investment reduced by 50 percent last year compared to 2017 figures.

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