European diplomats say there are some positive points alongside many problematic ones
The E.U. is “unconvinced” by Britain’s new Brexit proposals but has not immediately dismissed them, with officials and diplomats saying on Thursday there were positive points alongside the many problematic ones.
The question is: are they the basis for negotiations?
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he hopes so, as he moves to execute his vow to take his country out of the E.U. on Oct. 31, deal or no deal. His government submitted legal proposals on Wednesday to the E.U., which says it is carefully looking them over.
E.U. Council President Donald Tusk, who will chair a make-or-break Oct. 17-18 E.U. summit dominated by Brexit, tweeted a message to Johnson: “We remain open but still unconvinced.” European diplomats were equally skeptical. But they saw the potential for talks—if they could be corralled into the two weeks before the summit.
“The British government itself speaks of a negotiable text, and that is a positive thing,” said one. But the diplomat added: “The E.U. is not responsible for the fact that the proposal arrived yesterday [Wednesday]…. If it is not achieved before the European Council [summit], it is not our fault.”
The focus of attention was U.K. proposals for Northern Ireland, the British territory whose hard-won Good Friday peace deal is threatened by a no-deal Brexit, and which shares a border with E.U. member Ireland. Johnson wants to have Northern Ireland keep E.U.-similar standards for all goods to facilitate trade with Ireland, but for a complicated system reliant on technology to mostly avoid checks along the border.
Several diplomats said they viewed the continuation of E.U.-type standards positively. But they balked at other aspects of the proposals for Northern Ireland—particularly how the customs technology could work, and giving the Northern Ireland assembly the periodic right to unilaterally veto the standards alignment. “There are a lot of questions on the customs aspect… and big discordance on Northern Ireland consent,” said another diplomat. “What’s crucial in coming days is to know whether the British have room to maneuver” on those issues.
Another one said “it’s not out of the question that the Europeans figure something out” on the Northern Ireland consent aspect. “But I don’t see how we ever could move on customs checks on the island of Ireland. That’s a non-starter—but maybe the British know that and that’s designed to be a concession down the line,” he said.
London’s argument that it was now up to Brussel to offer counter arguments were shot down Thursday by the European Commission. “Further work is needed. But that work needs to be done by the United Kingdom and not the other way around,” a spokeswoman, Natasha Bertaud, told a media briefing.
The European Parliament, which has to approve or reject any new deal that might be struck between Britain and the E.U., made it clear that the proposals as they stand would not fly. The MEPs on its Brexit steering group said in a statement it “does not find these last minute proposals… in their current form, represent a basis for an agreement to which the European Parliament could give consent.”