Brexit Negotiators Can't Bear to Think of Opening Up Talks Again

(Bloomberg) -- In the small hours of Thursday morning, members of Michel Barnier’s Brexit negotiation team were still celebrating a deal with the U.K. over Belgian beers in one of Brussels’s busiest bars. They can scarcely have imagined the hangover would come quite so soon.

Civil servants on both sides were jubilant, in the words of one European Union diplomat, at finally striking an agreement after a roller-coaster 17 months around the negotiation table. But their deal -- “at technical level” as jargon has it -- ignores a huge political question: After a string of resignations from her government on Thursday, can Prime Minister Theresa May get the accord through Parliament?

A few hours after the celebrations, EU President Donald Tusk alluded to the volatility in the U.K. in a dawn news conference, even before the string of ministerial walkouts began in London. He said a summit on Nov. 25 would take place unless “something extraordinary happens.”

Other than that, the bureaucrats of Brussels would rather not think about it. They’re weary of the political drama in the U.K. and say their governments are increasingly becoming disengaged from Brexit.

‘Exhausted’

Despite a series of news conferences in Brussels on Thursday and whispered conversations in corridors, there are few answers to the question of what will happen if May can’t get the deal past lawmakers, let alone if she is forced from office or if the U.K. wants to alter the deal before its scheduled EU withdrawal on March 29.

“We think we have, on both sides, exhausted our margin for maneuver under our respective mandates,” said one EU official close to the negotiations, speaking on the usual condition of the anonymity.

For the EU, the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. “If someone wishes for changes they also have to take responsibility and assess what this does to the process,” the official said.

Drawing Board

The negotiators, led by the U.K.’s Olly Robbins and the EU’s Sabine Weyand, thought they’d seen off the worst last month. Both were convinced they’d struck a deal until U.K. Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab turned up on a Sunday evening in Brussels to tell them it wouldn’t fly.

“We had to put our thinking caps back on,” said one EU official. A second official said the negotiators were determined not to risk the same thing happening again. This time it’s now or never.

Back at the drawing board, the idea of putting Northern Ireland in a different customs territory from the rest of the U.K., which Raab opposed, was scrapped. Instead, Robbins and Weyand hatched another plan to avoid a hard Irish border by putting the whole of the U.K. temporarily in a customs union with the EU, until a future trade deal.

That had previously been an EU red line. In relenting, the bloc insisted on language in the deal stating that negotiations on the two sides’ future relationship would be “building on the single customs territory.” In other words, the U.K. will eventually probably be in a permanent customs union with the EU.

According to reports in London, that language was the final straw for Raab, who resigned shortly after Tusk’s news conference.

If May acknowledges that her agreement is unraveling and she can’t make the Nov. 25 summit where the bloc’s 27 other leaders are supposed to sign off, the meeting might go ahead anyway but as an opportunity to discuss “no deal” contingency plans, according to officials.

Mainly Brussels is watching and waiting. “We try not to get excited,” said one EU diplomat who hadn’t been celebrating on Wednesday night.

But as German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday, “the question of further negotiations doesn’t arise at all.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.