Chequers: they thought it was all over. It is now. Brexit brinkmanship or bust

Donald Tusk President of the EU Council

At our EU27 working lunch today we had a good discussion on Brexit, which once again reconfirmed our full unity. Let me highlight three points.

First, we reconfirmed that there will be no Withdrawal Agreement without a solid, operational and legally binding Irish backstop. And we continue to fully support Michel Barnier in his efforts to find such a model.

Second, we agreed to have a joint political declaration that provides as much clarity as possible on the future relations. Everybody shared the view that while there are positive elements in the Chequers proposal, the suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work. Not least because it risks undermining the Single Market.

Third, we also discussed the timetable for further negotiations. The moment of truth for Brexit negotiations will be the October European Council. In October we expect maximum progress and results in the Brexit talks. Then we will decide whether conditions are there to call an extraordinary summit in November to finalise and formalise the deal.

If this isn’t a public  humiliation for  Theresa May I’d like to know what is.  That’s what it looked like, live.

The working assumption ( mine anyway) was that Chequers would be quietly taken as a work in progress and  knocked into some sort of acceptable shape for a deal.   It was easy to forget that Salzburg wasn’t a negotiating session but a platform for grandstanding. Theresa May was given only 10 minutes  to make her presentation without Q&A last night and was naturally excluded from the brief Brexit session over lunch today. So she got the result pretty well like the rest of us. She was shaking and furious.  Expectations of gentle collegial treatment were dashed. The doom merchants in her party  will now have free rein and pronounce Chequers dead – courtesy this time of the EU .. Suddenly she appears to have no platform to stand on – at the Conservative conference and beyond.

What is the  EU 27 strategy? Are they abandoning May and counting on chaos in the UK out of which might emerge a second referendum under a new government? Led by whom? Jeremy Corbyn? A  German style grand coalition led by  Jeremy Hunt, Phil Hammond or Sajid Javid?

Macron seems keen on  mixing it with the Brexiteers.

It was a good and brave step by the prime minister [Theresa May]. But we all agreed on this today, the proposals in their current state are not acceptable, especially on the economic side of it. The Chequers plan cannot be take it or leave it.

Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be alright, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home are liars. It’s even more true since they left the day after so as not to have to deal with it.

Tom McTaig  of Politico

Whether he likes it or not, Tusk has thrown a hand grenade into Brit politics at the worst possible time for May (before Tory conf). This is **the opposite** of the supposed de-dramatisation strategy to soft-pedal until Oct, hit May hard at EU summit then wait for Nov climbdown.

 

Tom Newton-Dunn, Pol Ed The Sun

That was an extraordinary press conference from May. In the room we could see she was visibly angry and shaking through out it #EUCO

May suggests for first time she will abandon Chequers – but only if EU make their own proposal for frictionless goods trade.

It appears the EU27 didn’t get the ‘Save Theresa from Conference’ memo..

 

 The story of May’s reply

The response of Tusk left May on the defensive, giving her an hour to prepare for a press conference in which she appeared visibly nervous, and forced to repeat that her proposals could still form the basis of negotiations at the EU’s October summit and a likely emergency summit in November.

May repeatedly defended Chequers, which proposes that the UK share a common rulebook for goods and services after Brexit, because that would help ensure that trade could flow freely across the Irish border. “Our white paper remains the only serious and credible proposal on the table for achieving that objective,” she said.

After what she described as a “frank” meeting with Mr Tusk, Mrs May – who was not present at the lunch – insisted that the plan drawn up at her country residence in July remains “the only serious and credible proposition on the table” for resolving the issue of the Irish border.

She has flatly rejected a European Commission backstop proposal for Northern Ireland to remain within the EU customs area after Brexit, arguing that this would draw a border down the Irish Sea.

Speaking after her meeting with Mr Tusk, she said: “We both agree there can be no withdrawal agreement without a legally-operative backstop.

“But that backstop cannot divide the United Kingdom into two customs territories, and we will be bringing forward our own proposals shortly.

The British PM tried to shift the burden for future concessions on to her EU counterparts, saying a deal could be reached “if political will is there on the other side”.

The Telegraph claims

Earlier that day, two EU leaders claimed there was “almost unanimous” support among them for the UK to hold a second Brexit referendum, as Theresa May warned that Britain was willing to walk away without a deal.

Later..

Why did it all go so wrong, at least according to British expectations?  Were they pitched far too high?  If May wasn’t the victim of a premeditated  ambush what’s the explanation  for this fiasco?

The Guardian’s Daniel Boffey reports the theory doing the rounds that May “ dropped a bombshell” by telling Varadkar over breakfast that her detailed plans wouldn’t be ready by the scheduled October summit. Suspecting another British stalling move, the  EU 27 led by Macron actually  tightened the deadline, adding a special 17 and 18 November  summit, not as the decisive session but one called only to tidy up the details.

The theory is neat but is it credible the EU would have changed tack so fundamentally and suddenly over the date, when November has long been in the frame?

The impression of  new hardball as deadlines approach may be the result of botched diplomacy. Or quite deliberate as the case  may be. The next four weeks  will be high tensioned indeed.

This is what the British government  has to deliver within a month, according to the FT reporting team.

Mrs May was furious with the EU’s onslaught after only on Thursday morning having told Leo Varadkar, the Irish premier, that a deal on Northern Ireland would be impossible within the next month.  The EU’s side is gambling that she will now have little choice but to show initiative on finding solutions and must scrap her original negotiating plan, which involved holding back the most important concessions until the last moment  The UK side, for instance, has long promised a detailed paper on the Irish backstop, which would explain how it envisaged avoiding standards checks on goods crossing the north-south border.  The EU is also waiting for the UK to engage in drafting a joint statement on future relations. Mr Barnier’s team is close to circulating their first drafts of the “political declaration”, which uses a more orthodox free trade agreement than Mrs May’s Chequers deal as a platform for economic relations.  At this stage the EU side seems unfazed by the risk that the added pressure might hobble Mrs May, rather than give her room to manoeuvre.

 

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London