The European Union has expressed its regret at the rejection of the Brexit withdrawal agreement by the UK parliament. It also recognises there is not a sufficient majority in the UK parliament for a Brexit solution. As Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit coordinator for the European parliament, put it:
The UK parliament has said what it doesn’t want. Now is the time to find out what UK parliamentarians want.
While the outcome of the vote is no surprise to the EU, one might be able to hear a slight exasperation in the voice of Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, in his speech to the European parliament on the morning after the vote:
The EU feels that it has done all it can to deliver a Brexit agreement within the constraints of the British government’s red lines and the fact that a departing member state cannot retain the benefits of EU membership. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, stressed that the EU had invested “enormous time and effort to negotiate” the deal and had “shown creativity and flexibility throughout”.
For the EU, the ball is firmly in the British government’s court. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, the EU is not willing to engage in any early guessing games as to what might happen next. It cannot act until the dust settles on the other side of the channel and the UK political process yields some kind of consensus as to what the British negotiating position may be moving forward. As the Irish government said in a statement:
The government urges the UK to set out how it proposes to move forward. We will then consider what steps to take in consultation with our EU partners.
This is a view echoed by Barnier:
As long as we do not have a way out of this current British political impasse, which has the support of a parliamentary majority, we cannot advance. That is why the next steps need to be clearly set out by the British government.
The EU gets ready for any scenarios
For the EU, the withdrawal agreement is the best possible compromise to reduce the uncertainty and damage caused by Brexit and to ensure the UK’s orderly withdrawal from the EU. It delivers on all the objectives of the negotiation process and, together with the political declaration and assurances from Juncker and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, on the Irish border, it sets the framework for the negotiation of the future UK-EU relationship.
The Brexit clock is ticking. The UK parliament’s rejection of the withdrawal agreement increases the risk of a no-deal Brexit. While this is the worst possible outcome for the UK and the EU, the European Commission and EU governments are stepping up their preparations for a no-deal Brexit to ensure that all contingency measures are in place.
The EU is also not ruling out an extension of the article 50 process. But this requires a request by the British government and the unanimous support of all remaining 27 member states.
The outcome of this stage of the negotiation process will set the tone for forging a future relationship. Barnier has made it clear that the ratification of the withdrawal agreement: “Is a requirement to create mutual trust between us, in view of our second negotiation”. The implication is that without an agreement to ensure a no-deal Brexit, the negotiation of a future relationship may take place in a less constructive atmosphere.
The current withdrawal agreement and political declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU reflect the red lines of the British prime minister, Theresa May. The EU is willing to accommodate shifts in these. As Barnier’s Brexit staircase shows, the current British red lines lead to only two possible outcomes: a free trade agreement along the same lines as Canada, or a no-deal Brexit.
But, following the deal’s defeat in parliament, the expectation is that, despite the prime minister’s reluctance, the British government’s red lines will have to change in order to achieve some kind of domestic consensus that can be turned into a workable negotiating position.
For the EU27, the Brexit negotiation has been a process of damage limitation. The EU respects but does not welcome Brexit. Some see Tusk’s reaction to the government’s parliamentary defeat as a door left ajar for the UK to remain in the EU. But, faced with a weakened British government that is unable to command parliamentary support for the withdrawal agreement, there is very little that the EU can do.
As Barnier put it during the interim between the Brexit referendum and the triggering of article 50: “I cannot negotiate on my own.” Ironically, with Brexit edging closer, Barnier finds himself in the same position – waiting for a reactive negotiating partner that wants to leave the EU but does not have sufficient domestic support coalescing around a unified solution to achieve this goal.