EU Doesn’t Budge on Brexit

The EU still refuses to separate its “four freedoms” and makes clear that Britain cannot go over Michel Barnier’s head.

Prime Ministers Theresa May of the United Kingdom and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland talk during a European Council summit in Salzburg, Austria, September 20
Prime Ministers Theresa May of the United Kingdom and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland talk during a European Council summit in Salzburg, Austria, September 20 (KPRM/Krystian Maj)

The EU summit in Salzburg, Austria has driven home two truths about Brexit:

  1. The United Kingdom cannot cherrypick the conditions of its future relations with the EU. If it wants to stay in the single market, it must accept the same terms as Iceland and Norway.
  2. There is no point in going over Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier’s head and appealing directly to EU leaders.

None of this should be news.

Accepting reality

The EU has made clear from the start that its “four freedoms” — free movement of capital, goods, services and people — cannot be separated. And yet Britain keeps trying. First it proposed to stay in the single market while closing its borders to EU nationals. The EU said no. Now it is proposing to keep free trade in goods but not in services. In Salzburg, EU leaders said no.

Brexit supporters in Theresa May’s Conservative Party have for months called on her to appeal directly to fellow leaders, hoping to get a better deal from them. But Barnier got his mandate from those same leaders. He would not do a deal they disagree with, nor would the politicians undermine him by negotiating directly with May.

The fact that Brexit hardliners, who can hold May hostage, are unwilling to accept these realities is why a no-deal Brexit is becoming more likely.

Irish border

The summit made no progress on what is arguably the most problematic issue in Britain’s divorce from the EU: the Irish border.

Here the EU has been willing to compromise, offering to keep Northern Ireland in “regulatory alignment” with the bloc in order to avoid a hard border in Ulster.

That is a lot to ask of the British. It would mean different customs regimes for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

But it’s not unprecedented. Gibraltar is outside the EU customs union, which is why there are border controls between it and Spain. So are the Canary Islands, Helgoland and the British, Dutch and French islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific.