EU Refuses to Budge on Irish Border

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union is struggling to make sense of the massive defeat the British Parliament dealt to the Brexit deal agreed with Prime Minister Theresa May, but the bloc is refusing to remove the Irish-border element that U.K. lawmakers most oppose.

“The backstop that we have agreed with the U.K. must remain a backstop and it must remain credible,” the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told the European Parliament on Wednesday in Strasbourg, France. The arrangement is designed to keep the Irish border open in all circumstances, which led many British politicians to vote against the deal because they fear it would permanently trap the U.K. in the bloc’s orbit.

The huge vote against the deal that Barnier drafted, the largest loss for any British government in modern history, leaves big questions over how the EU should respond. With the U.K. due to withdraw from the bloc in 10 weeks, there isn’t a coherent solution to prevent Britain leaving without a deal and the potential economic catastrophe that could trigger.

“We fear more than ever that there is a risk of no deal,” Barnier said. “It’s up to the British government to indicate how we take this forward to an orderly withdrawal.”

Barnier’s language on the backstop signals that he is not prepared to allow it to be time-limited or to give the U.K. the power to remove itself from it, something that British lawmakers have demanded in return for support of the deal.

The result in the House of Commons Tuesday night was shocking, according to EU officials who asked not to be named. Previously, they had suggested that a much smaller defeat of the Brexit deal, of around 60 votes, would give them something to work with and that they had some concessions up their sleeves to get it over the line.

But the loss by 230 is greater even than many feared, leading to a sense of confusion about what to do. They will restart talks with May but will resist going back on what’s already been agreed.

European policymakers took to the airwaves Wednesday morning to express their sense of alarm and confusion.

Speaking on French radio, French EU Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau looked at who to blame. “The British political class is the problem,” she said. “The inability to come to an agreement.”

Two Sides

Many officials in the U.K. and the EU now think that it’s inevitable that Brexit will be postponed to give the two sides more time to negotiate and get a deal passed by the British Parliament. That needs the approval of all 27 remaining EU governments.

Loiseau said it was possible France would accept a postponement of the U.K.’s departure but it depends on “what it’s for.”

“If it’s just to ask for more EU concessions, then we’ll be in an impasse,” she said.

Some in Europe think that Tuesday night’s defeat signals the end of Brexit altogether and that the U.K. won’t leave the EU after all.

“I was always convinced that the British government couldn’t possibly meet the excessive demands of the Brexit camp,” Juergen Hardt, a lawmaker in Germany and spokesman for foreign policy within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU group, said on Twitter. “The only option now is to put on the emergency brake -- via a new referendum or by aborting the withdrawal process.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.