Why EU leaders are not ready to budge on Brexit


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Media captionWhy did May lose another Brexit vote?

“Has the prime minister’s new defeat in parliament made the EU more likely to compromise?”

I’ve been asked over and again on BBC programmes following Thursday’s vote on Theresa May’s Brexit strategy.

In a word: no.

I understand the logic of the question: Brussels can clearly see the prime minister struggling at home.

Ultimately the EU wants a deal, so wouldn’t it make sense to give her a helping hand now?

Well, not to the EU.

One Brussels official told me Thursday’s vote convinced the EU more than ever that before they contemplated changes to the Brexit deal, they would need to see evidence of a comfortable majority of MPs solidly behind Theresa May.

Otherwise, the fear is that the EU would give ground for nothing.

If Brexit and party divisions run so deep amongst MPs, so the theory here goes, there would be a risk of Theresa May turning to Brussels every week or so, asking for “a bit more” and then another bit more – in order to keep restless MPs onside until 29 March.

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Will Theresa May be able to offer the EU a solution “that will fly”?

After all, in these politically dramatic times in the UK – a lot can change in very few weeks.

EU diplomats tell me they hear the hype: the political claims and counter-claims amongst political factions in the UK; they see letters exchanged between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, threats of mass resignations and dreams of cross-party compromise but no evidence, EU contacts say, of a solution “that will fly”.

So for now, EU leaders still believe this is not the time to budge.

They see the UK arguing, debating and negotiating with itself again – as it has done so often during the Brexit process – rather than engaging with Brussels.

As a result of all this, the new round of EU-UK negotiations are going nowhere fast.

“Window-dressing” is how one senior EU figure described the talks to me – with each side simply repeating their red lines to the other.

So, the current favourite prediction in Brussels is that things will only be resolved in March.

Probably with backs against the wall at the summit of EU leaders in Brussels on 21 March – eight days away from B-day.

And why then?

Because interestingly for those who believe the EU hands too much power to Brussels bureaucrats, the only ones who can change the content of the Brexit deal – signed off by the 27 EU leaders plus Theresa May back in November – are those 27 EU leaders plus Theresa May – not Jean Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk or any other “Brussels bureaucrat”.

Even well-seasoned EU officials don’t want to predict with any certainty what may happen if 21 March turns into a showdown Brexit summit.

Being within touching distance of a no-deal Brexit which the EU is convinced would be nightmarish, would certainly focus minds, as well as possibly kick-start the famous EU ten-to-midnight, deal-making tendency.

“Who knows what decisions EU leaders might take if faced with an imminent no-deal?” one senior source told me.

“But it’s worth saying that up until now in the Brexit process, it’s been the EU leaders taking the hard line in negotiations, not Brussels officials.”

Preferable for the EU would be Theresa May agreeing last minute to a permanent customs union, allowing the EU to dramatically change conditions around the backstop.

Deal done. Brexit over. Allowing both sides to start talks on what really matters to them: the post-Brexit EU-UK trade deal.

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Media captionConfused by Brexit jargon? Reality Check unpacks the basics

But there’s a big risk. That at such a last-minute summit, either Theresa May or EU leaders would not blink enough to get the deal over the line.

One EU official insisted the bloc wasn’t being “macho” about not “giving in” to the UK – but rather they needed to see a sustainable solution for everyone involved.

Translation: don’t expect the EU to act against its own interest.

“We see Theresa May trying to blackmail three groups to get this deal passed,” he told me “The EU and particularly Ireland, Labour Party MPs and Brexiteers.”

“The chance of this ending badly – with no deal at all – is uncomfortably high.”

Which is why most people you speak to in Brussels think an extension to Article 50 – this Brexit negotiation process – is almost inevitable. Though there’s little EU enthusiasm for it.

Frustration and despondency with the Brexit process is widespread, and EU leaders (think Spain with the Catalan issue and wobbly minority government, France with the “yellow vest” protest movement; Italy in recession again and with its infighting coalition government) face other dilemmas screaming for their attention.

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