Boris Johnson’s hopes of securing a Brexit deal in Brussels this month were receding fast on Friday, with EU diplomats increasingly convinced that any exit agreement with the UK must wait until after a British general election.
Downing Street’s apparent confirmation in a Scottish court document that Mr Johnson would seek an extension to Britain’s departure date beyond October 31 if he cannot secure a deal has only heightened expectations that the tortuous Brexit process is heading for more delay.
UK government officials privately admit Brussels is likely to “salami slice” Mr Johnson’s Brexit proposals — delivered on Wednesday — before pronouncing that time is too short to broker an agreement on his complex proposals for the Irish border before an EU summit on October 17-18.
The UK prime minister has tabled a plan which, if implemented, would keep Northern Ireland closely aligned to the EU single market on all goods coming at the same time as taking the region out of the EU customs union.
Under Mr Johnson’s plan customs checks would take place away from the Irish border, employing new, untested technologies, raising fears in Dublin and Brussels over the reintroduction of a hard land border in Ireland.
On Friday EU officials delivered a grim verdict on the ideas. Following talks with the UK’s Brexit negotiator David Frost in Brussels, the European Commission said they do “not provide a basis for concluding an agreement”.
With the UK told to go back to the drawing board, talk in Paris has already turned to the conditions on which an extension to the Article 50 process might be granted, with British concessions on money and fisheries expected to be at the top of the list of demands.
Meanwhile Michel Barnier, EU chief Brexit negotiator, told EU27 ambassadors on Thursday that Brussels expects Mr Johnson to call an election soon after October 31, once the extension was in place.
This was always Mr Johnson’s worst fear. Once the group of Europhile MPs at Westminster known as the “rebel alliance” passed legislation to halt a no-deal exit on October 31, the British prime minister suspected that Brussels would play the long game.
From the perspective of the EU’s 27 member states, such a strategy is low risk but carries potentially high rewards: some EU diplomats believe a British election could lead to a second referendum and ultimately a reversal of the 2016 Leave vote.
Leo Varadkar, Irish prime minister, hinted as much on a visit to Sweden on Thursday. Asked whether Britain might stay in the EU, he said: “All the polls since Boris Johnson became prime minister suggest that’s what the British people actually want.”
Under this scenario, an election might produce a parliament with a majority of MPs — Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrat and others — willing to go the country with another referendum.
Most polls suggest that if another Brexit referendum were to be held today — more than three years after the 2016 plebiscite — Remain would secure a narrow majority. The polls, though, predicted the same outcome immediately before the 52-48 Leave vote.
However, the thinking in EU capitals runs that, even if Mr Johnson were to win the election, he would simply come back to the negotiating table with a similar proposal to the one being debated in Brussels at the moment.
If Mr Johnson won comfortably, he might no longer be reliant on Northern Ireland’s 10 Democratic Unionist MPs in parliament for support. In that scenario the British prime minister might be willing to contemplate the EU’s original offer of a backstop covering just Northern Ireland, possibly with a time limit.
Under Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, rejected three times by MPs at Westminster, the backstop was expanded to keep the whole of the UK in the EU single market and customs union to prevent the return of a hard Irish border.
Mr Johnson’s advisers say any attempt by Brussels to push the UK towards an extension would represent “a serious strategic miscalculation” and force Mr Johnson — who has adopted a conciliatory tone this week — down a very different path.
In an election, they say Mr Johnson would have to fight on a very hardline Brexit platform to fend off the threat of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. “It’s possible he could campaign for no deal,” said one cabinet minister.
For now, both sides will continue to talk but they are far apart on the key issues.
Member states have decided they are unworkable and leave far too much of the practical detail to be worked out in the future.
Many member states are already looking beyond the negotiations leading up to the October 17-18 summit and are asking whether the current talks could provide a platform for discussions after a British election.
French officials say they will not be rushed into accepting a poor offer just to get a deal and want assurances that the UK will not pursue disruptive tax policies or industrial standards. “We don’t want the UK to become a tax haven at the gates of Europe,” one official said.
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