UK, EU Brexit Negotiators Prepare for High-Stakes October Summit

4 October 2018

With the upcoming meeting of the European Council on 18 October, officials from the EU27 and the UK are working to settle core issues in the planned Brexit “divorce” deal and to define future steps for completing the withdrawal treaty. The past several weeks have seen officials from both sides exchanging differing visions for how Brexit and the future EU-UK relationship should look like. 

The results of the October summit, officials say, could also determine whether negotiators will be able to finalise a Brexit deal at a special EU summit being planned for mid-November. 

Salzburg informal summit reveals negotiating sticking points

On the EU side, on 20 September the bloc’s heads of state convened for an informal summit in Salzburg, Austria, to review current issues related to internal security and migration, along with gauging the progress of Brexit talks. At the meeting, parties flagged in particular the challenging issue of how to avoid a hard border on the Irish isle, along with what form a future trade accord should take.

The EU and UK previously said that a legal “backstop” would be in place should talks on finding an alternative approach to the Irish situation fail, though the UK has since indicated that the terms provisionally agreed on this subject would not be sufficient. The EU27 has insisted on keeping its proposed backstop, which would involve an open border on the Irish isle and continue Northern Ireland’s access to the single market. Northern Ireland would thus remain obligated to EU customs rules, tariffs, rules of origin, and other regulatory requirements.

One day before the summit, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said that there may be the possibility of rethinking the proposed “backstop” provisions.

“We are ready to improve this proposal. Work in the EU is ongoing. We are clarifying which goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would need to be checked, where, when and by whom these checks would be performed,” he said, according to comments reported by Politico. He added that the most crucial of the border inspections that would need to remain intact would be sanitary measures, such as with livestock trade crossing the internal border on the island.

However, EU27 leaders did not announce any major shift in position in Salzburg. They reconfirmed “full unity” and commitment to their common position, which according to European Council President Donald Tusk would involve three pillars.

These state that: “there will be no Withdrawal Agreement without a solid, operational and legally binding Irish backstop,” and that the EU27 wants a “joint political declaration that provides as much clarity as possible on the future relations.” Lastly, they referred to the need for a “timetable for further negotiations,” particularly for October and November.

After the summit, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said that despite the progress made, negotiations were at an “impasse.” From the start of the Brexit negotiations, the EU has insisted that participation in its single market requires accepting its four freedoms. Given that the UK will not take on board those four freedoms, experts suggest the options could include remaining in the customs union, or to pursue a free trade agreement, as if it were another third country.

However, May suggested in late September that the idea of continued membership in the European Economic Area and a customs union would constitute “a mockery of the referendum we had two years ago,“ referring to the vote in which a majority of UK citizens opted for leaving the European Union. Doing so, she said, would preserve migration between the EU and UK without set limits, while also hampering the UK’s ability to set its own trade policy.

Another option of a free trade agreement has already been rejected by the country’s parliament “unanimously,” the UK leader said. She also warned that it could “threaten the integrity” of the country given its implications for Northern Ireland.

“The second option would be a basic free trade agreement for Great Britain that would introduce checks at the Great Britain/EU border. But even worse, Northern Ireland would effectively remain in the Customs Union and parts of the Single Market, permanently separated economically from the rest of the UK by a border down the Irish Sea,” she said.

“Anything which fails to respect the referendum or which effectively divides our country in two would be a bad deal and I have always said no deal is better than a bad deal,” she added.

The UK leader, in the meanwhile, reiterated her call for “frictionless trade in goods” through the creation of a new facilitated customs arrangement (FCA), proposed in the Chequers white paper in July. (See Bridges Weekly, 26 July 2018) Though the EU27 acknowledged “positive elements” in the Chequers proposal, a key component of Theresa May’s Brexit approach, Tusk noted that it would ultimately “undermine the single market.”

In her post-Salzburg speech, May concluded by saying that “at this late stage in the negotiations, it is not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposal without a detailed explanation and counter proposals.” She called for the bloc to outline their own suggestions in response in order to facilitate future discussions – while noting that the UK will take steps in the meantime to prepare should Brexit occur without a deal in place.

Tusk, meanwhile, said that the EU27 is expecting at the October summit to see “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."

Conservative party debates Brexit deal approaches

This week, the UK’s Conservative Party Conference has been considering the government’s stance in the Brexit talks, with the event starting on 30 September and wrapping up on 3 October. The talks were met with domestic protests calling for the Brexit process to be stopped entirely, amid speculation of whether a second referendum on whether to exit the EU might be feasible.

The Conservative Party, known also as the Tories, have been divided over May’s Chequers proposal and whether she should continue to have her negotiators advocate for it in their talks with Brussels. “The only way forward is to bin Brexit and to remain in the EU,” said Tim Skeet from the group Tories against Brexit, according to comments reported by the Evening Standard.

Just before the conference, former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who is rumoured to be vying for the Conservative Party leadership, published an article in the Daily Telegraph detailing a “six point plan” on Brexit that he said should serve in lieu of the Chequers proposal, while calling for the UK government to “scrap Irish backstop and rewrite withdrawal agreement.”

Speaking ahead of the conference, May said that the government was on the verge of a Brexit deal, despite the friction that emerged following the Salzburg summit.

“Two years on from the referendum, we’ve made progress in the Brexit negotiations at the same time as improving life for people at home. But we’re now at a crucial moment. The right deal is close – and with it the opportunity to make life better for ordinary working people,” she said, according to comments reported by the Financial Times.

Meanwhile, some UK government officials have warned that should negotiations not advance soon, they will need to prepare for the possibility of the March 2019 passing without a deal in place.

“If the only offer from the EU threatens the integrity of our Union then we will be left with no choice but to leave with no deal,” said Dominic Raab, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. “What is unthinkable is that this government, or any British government, could be bullied by the threat of some kind of economic embargo, into signing a one-sided deal against our country’s interests,” he added, though also mentioning that the UK is ready to listen to “alternative ways” to deliver Brexit.

At this pivotal stage for the UK-EU negotiations, the Conservative Party Conference has been flagged as a potential turning point in the UK domestic discussions. The UK premier ultimately told the conference that the “future is full of promise,” and is expected to continue pushing an updated version of the Chequers plan as a model.

Recognising a no deal Brexit as a “bad outcome,” May said that “has never meant getting a deal at any cost.” She also ruled out the possibility of a second referendum.

"Britain isn't afraid to leave with no deal if we have to. Leaving without a deal would be a bad outcome for the UK and the EU. It would be tough at first, but the resilience and ingenuity of the British people would see us through," she said.

Meanwhile, last Friday, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, ruled himself out of the race for the position of European Commission President, given that the current president, Jean-Claude Juncker, will leave the post next year. Barnier explained that seeing the Brexit negotiations through would remain his key priority. “It is my duty and responsibility to continue the Brexit negotiations right to the end,” he said.

The October European Council summit will likely shed light on the future of the UK-EU relationships, with experts looking for signals on what a final deal could look like, along with its likelihood. If an agreement is reached, the deal could be ratified before the 29 March Brexit deadline, but experts warn that many hurdles still remain between now and then. A potential deal would provide for the previously endorsed 21-month transition period when the UK would still be subject to EU laws, though without any stake in decision-making. (See Bridges Weekly, 26 July 2018)

ICTSD reporting; “Michel Barnier: EU ready to ‘improve’ Irish border proposal,” POLITICO, 19 September 2018; “Brexit news latest: Thousands protest against leaving EU at Conservative Party conference 2018,” EVENING STANDARD, 1 October 2018; “Boris Johnson: My plan for a better Brexit,” THE TELEGRAPH, 27 September 2018; “Pressure increases on Theresa May ahead of Conservative conference,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 28 September 2018; “Tory conference: Hunt says UK will 'fight' if EU refuses to compromise in Brexit talks - as it happened,” THE GUARDIAN, 1 October 2018; “Conservative Party conference day two: Dominic Raab says UK will listen to 'alternative ways' to deliver Brexit amid growing doubts over Chequers,” THE TELEGRAPH, 1 October 2018; “Barnier rules himself out of centre-right commission race,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 29 September 2018; “Brexit revealed: May's moment of truth - EU demands Irish answers by October,” EXPRESS, 29 September 2018.

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