THE Brexit end-game is upon us. It is time for cool heads and steady nerves. Over the summer, the pace and atmosphere of the Brexit negotiations here in Brussels have changed remarkably in a positive direction. For quite some time, the main negotiation seemed to be the British Government negotiating with itself. But, since the fateful cabinet awayday at Chequers, our Continental partners at last have a clear and realistic voice speaking for Britain. Bluster and grandstanding have been largely confined to the back benches.
At the same time, the tone of communications from the chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, appears to have become less rigid. Taking his cue from the guidelines given to him by the leaders of the EU 27, he has, for some time, been adamant that Britain’s only option was to adopt, off the shelf, one of the trade-relationship frameworks that currently apply to neighbouring non-EU countries or major economic players elsewhere in the world. He warned that Mrs May’s “red lines” meant that several of these were off the table. “No cherry-picking” was the constant refrain, and “You can’t have your cake and eat it.”
But now there is talk of an “ambitious partnership” that “has no precedent”, albeit the language remains cautious: for example, speaking to German car manufacturers recently, he warned that delays for checks as car components criss-crossed across the Channel could not be ruled out.
YET, at the very moment when the likelihood of an amicable deal is at its greatest, and both sides seem to have the will to go the extra mile, the media on both sides of the Channel are awash with information about a broad range of unpleasant consequences in the event of a “no deal”.
This is very unsettling for those in my diocese who felt reassured by the draft Withdrawal Treaty, which gives rights for British citizens currently living on the continent broadly equivalent to those that currently apply to everyone through EU freedom-of-movement rules. But, of course, these rights and safeguards only come into force if there is a completely agreed Withdrawal Treaty before Brexit takes place. Very much the stickiest point still to be agreed is a “backstop” solution to ensure that a hard border is not needed across the island of Ireland, regardless of what form the final new economic relationship between the UK and the remaining EU states takes.
One can only speculate about why both sides in the Brexit negotiations have chosen this moment to reveal their contingency plans for “No deal”. It could be to signal their option to walk away from the negotiating table, and therefore have a stronger bargaining hand; but it could equally well be to prepare people to accept the eventual deal, with its inevitable compromise of initial negotiating positions.
THE clock is ticking; enough time needs to be allowed, once a treaty text is agreed, for ratification by the British Parliament and the European Parliament. The summit meeting of Prime Ministers and Presidents fixed for 18 October in Brussels has thus far been the deadline for agreement. But talk is beginning of an extra summit meeting in November, devoted to Brexit alone.
There are some signs of willingness by some of the EU 27 to be more flexible towards the UK position, now that, at last, it has one. They have to balance avoiding an attractive precedent for possible subsequent departures against the negative consequences for their own countries of the EU block’s second-largest economy leaving the Union in an unregulated way.
The EU Prime Ministers and Presidents were due to have their next meeting in Salzburg yesterday, which was scheduled to end with a discussion of Brexit among the EU27. Mr Barnier will report back. Options for reaching a deal with the UK will have been spelt out, and EU leaders will have told him how much room for manoeuvre they were willing to give him to conclude the negotiations.
I pray for the leaders of all our European nations, in whose hands the final decisions rest, to act with wisdom and proper concern for the well-being of all their citizens. I am praying, also, for the officials who are working under the radar as they patiently seek constructive ways forward.
Dr Robert Innes is the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe.