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As the Brexit negotiations enter a decisive stage the EU is not home and dry

United, for now. John Thys/EPA

Now that the European Council has confirmed the draft terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the new Article 50 negotiating guidelines, its chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, can open negotiations on an overall framework for a future relationship between the EU and the UK.

Given the British government’s commitment to leave the customs union and the single market, the European Council recognised that a future economic relationship is likely to take the form of a balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging free trade agreement.

Surprisingly, the remaining 27 EU member states, known as the EU27, have managed to maintain a unified voice during the Brexit negotiation. The European Commission who negotiates on behalf of the EU, remains firmly in the driving seat as the effective drafting of the Withdrawal Agreement shows. Meanwhile, the British government has become weaker and more divided as the Brexit negotiations have progressed.

Read more: Brexit transition: three misunderstandings about the deal explained

Although the Withdrawal Agreement largely reflects the EU’s preferences, and, because “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, the EU faces three key challenges in the months ahead to ensure that the negotiations make it to the home stretch: avoiding a no deal, managing the ticking negotiation clock and ensuring unity.

Avoiding a no-deal scenario

Both the Article 50 process, which governs the UK’s withdrawal negotiation, and the EU’s Brexit strategy are geared towards ensuring the UK’s orderly departure – and this can only be achieved if the draft Withdrawal Agreement is ratified by both the UK and the EU. The most difficult challenge for the EU is to ensure that the British government ratifies the agreement. This is exacerbated by domestic factors that are largely beyond the EU’s control.

The British government is struggling to assuage different and at times overlapping factions at home. It has prioritised the accommodation of a broad church of pro and anti-Brexit voices, to the detriment of making hard and substantial political choices about the future EU-UK relationship, or the Irish border.

But the time for political choices has arrived. For the Withdrawal Agreement to be finalised, the government must put on the table robust proposals for the Irish border and contribute to the political declaration – accompanying the agreement – that will set out the framework for the future relationship. In its damage limitation mode, the EU has offered suggestions to these issues, namely, a “common regulatory area” for Ireland, and an ambitious free trade agreement after Brexit. But there is nothing more the EU can do unless the government sets out its stall.

Once made, these choices will not be broadly supported and if the prime minister, Theresa May, is faced with a Brexiteer rebellion in her party or a withdrawal of support from the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, a no-deal scenario may prove attractive. If her Conservative government was to fall, the prospect of a Labour-led government may not be a significantly better scenario – given the party’s own internal divisions and lack of clear strategy on Brexit beyond a loose commitment to a future customs union.

The EU has two assets in its bid to avoid a no-deal scenario. First, the European Commission, a seasoned negotiator, with a wealth of policy and technical expertise that has shown its ability to successfully remain in the driver’s seat and push the negotiations ahead despite the UK’s hesitance. Second, the overwhelming evidence of the negative effect of no deal for the UK and the EU. No Withdrawal Agreement would mean the abrupt departure of the UK, the adoption of World Trade Organisation norms for trade, and the end to UK-EU cooperation on key areas such as, nuclear safeguards, data exchange, counter-terrorism or aviation.

Juncker and May: sights set on the Brexit finish line. Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Managing the ticking negotiation clock

The final text of the Brexit agreement must be ready by the European Council meeting in October. This deadline is necessary to ensure that the text can be ratified by the UK, and on the EU side, by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament in time for Brexit day, set for March 29, 2019. The ticking Brexit clock is as loud as ever until the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified and implemented.

After the end of March 2019, the ticking becomes quieter for the EU because the transition period – until December 2020 – affords 21 additional months to prepare for the negative impact of Brexit.

Read more: Brexit transition deal: conceding on the possible in hope of the hypothetical

It is unlikely that the negotiation of the future relationship between the UK and the EU will be completed during the transition. It’s not far fetched to envisage the EU asking for an extension of the transition period to further negotiate the UK-EU future relationship. There will be no constraints of a hard deadline, and the UK will have become a “vassal state” with diminished influence at the EU top table. In any case, the British government is keen on a longer transition. There is nothing in the Withdrawal Agreement that limits this option.

A unified voice

As the negotiation of a framework for a future relationship with the UK starts, individual member states may be more vocal about their specific national preferences. While the Withdrawal Agreement only requires a qualified majority vote in the Council of Ministers, a future trade agreement will require a unanimity vote. Depending on the type of agreement, it could even require the support of regional parliaments – which would increase the number of possible veto players.

However, the EU27 are committed to protect the single market and to avoid a Brexit contagion – so the UK will not be afforded the same benefits as those of a member state. With European elections looming in 2019 and member states occupied with other joint and domestic concerns, it is likely that the EU27 will focus on what unites them rather than on what divides them to ensure both, an orderly Brexit but also an advantageous trade agreement afterwards. Still, a united front may not be sufficient to ensure that the Withdrawal Agreement is concluded and ratified.

Nine months into the negotiation process and considering what has been achieved, the leaders of the EU27 may indulge in a sigh of relief as the March European Council meeting draws to a close. However, as the Brexit negotiations enter another crucial phase, the EU’s Brexit success is dependent on avoiding a no-deal scenario, retaining a unified voice and ensuring that the Withdrawal Agreement makes it to the home stretch.

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