Optimism evaporating

27 September 2019

Tamlin Vickers, Partner at DRD Partnership in Brussels, looks at the current mood in Brussels where optimism is evaporating.

What is the latest mood in Brussels on Brexit following yet another topsy-turvy week in London? For those hoping a deal can be reached before 31 October, the week started with some optimism. By Thursday morning, however, following the bad-tempered session in Westminster, any sense of optimism had largely evaporated. As has become a recurring feature of this sorry process, the shift resulted not from events on the Continent but, rather, from developments in the UK.

Firstly, why the optimism? The outline of a deal is beginning to take shape, with a watered-down (and DUP-palatable) variant of the Northern Ireland-only backstop a likely landing zone. There is a growing desire among key actors to find a solution: the outgoing Commission would love to settle the matter before leaving office; Commission President Juncker, contrary to how he is portrayed in the British press, is pushing for a compromise; the UK’s close allies in the EU – the Nordics, the Dutch, and to a lesser extent the Germans – have come to terms with Brexit happening; France is simply impatient to get on with other more pressing matters.

Some in Paris and Berlin (fewer in Brussels) have come to believe that the Johnson government is serious about wanting a deal, despite airing frustrations about not having received any concrete proposals. This view has been bolstered by the passing of the Benn Act, which European officials believe has narrowed Johnson’s options and thereby increased his incentive for reaching a deal. The Supreme Court ruling has further reinforced this view, as while most people understand it did not fundamentally alter the dynamic, it nonetheless reduced the likelihood of Johnson being able to defy the Benn Act and/or prorogue through to Brexit day.

Moreover, some say that with the help of some creative language there would be sufficient time to reach (and pass) a deal at the European Council in mid-October, notwithstanding the repeated ultimatums and reminders that the clock is ticking. There has even been talk of a potential European Council at the very end of October, at which a deal could be agreed. The creative language would then be required to brush over the fact that the finalisation of the text and ratification by both sides would in practice go beyond the 31st. It would only need to be enough for Johnson to claim he had honoured his ‘do or die’ commitment.

The above reasons for European optimism do, however, need to be taken with a large pinch of salt, particularly as they now have to be set against the perceived damage which Johnson has caused to his chances of securing parliamentary support for any revised deal. The widely-held view is that Johnson’s aggressive stance on Wednesday has made the task of persuading the necessary clutch of Labour ‘leaver’ MPs to back him nearly impossible, and therefore any European attempts to find a compromise would risk expending political capital for nothing. Given all the twists and turns we have seen, it would be foolish to categorically rule out a deal being reached, but Johnson’s parliamentary performance on Wednesday seems to have been a real game-changer for many European officials, who have lost all hope that a solution can be found in October.

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