Pro-European Union (EU) demonstrators wave EU and British Union flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

EU Expects Two Weeks of Brexit Intensity as U.K. Goes to Brink

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union is unlikely to offer concessions to the U.K. on its Brexit deal until just before the British Parliament votes on it, triggering a frantic two-week period that culminates in a critical summit of leaders.

That’s the picture depicted by EU diplomats as the bloc starts to preemptively sketch out the choreography of mid-March. That was happening already, even before Prime Minister Theresa May’s offer to lawmakers of a possible delay.

Under the EU’s plan, it will get proof that May can get a clear majority in the House of Commons for the deal -- or an alternative way forward -- before the 27 remaining leaders gather to give it their blessing.

The EU is wary of turning the summit into a high-stakes negotiating session, and just as reluctant to make leaders sign off on something only for the British Parliament to strike it down again.

The two sides are working to come up with legal language so that U.K. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox can change his advice to say that the “backstop” arrangement -- aimed at keeping the Irish border infrastructure-free no matter what happens in the future -- can’t trap the U.K. permanently.

EU officials say that while they rule out any unilateral exit mechanism or expiry date, they can pledge to look in the future at alternative arrangements using technology to control the flow of goods, could establish review periods and can emphasize that the arrangement is not meant to be permanent.

This is how EU diplomats see things playing out:

  • This week and the next, U.K. and EU negotiators will continue trying to agree to changes on the contentious backstop to keep the border with Ireland open.
  • A breakthrough isn’t expected until around March 11 -- just a day before May’s vote. It would only be a provisional agreement with the European Commission and wouldn’t have the endorsement of the 27 remaining EU governments.
  • A vote on the deal will happen in the House of Commons on March 12.
  • That would quickly be followed on March 13 by a meeting in Brussels of the 27 national ambassadors to the EU, who would consider the fallout from the vote.
  • On March 13, members of parliament would vote on taking no-deal off the table.
  • As MPs vote on a Brexit postponement, there would be constant communication between capitals to formulate a response to a delay request.
  • On March 19, a meeting in Brussels will add the finishing touches to the EU’s plans
  • The summit takes place over two days, March 21-22 and it could be the U.K.’s last. But it might not be, if May uses this moment to ask leaders to postpone Brexit.

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