There Is No Better Brexit Deal

But the British aren’t listening.

Flags of the United Kingdom and the European Union outside the Berlaymont building in Brussels, January 29, 2016
Flags of the United Kingdom and the European Union outside the Berlaymont building in Brussels, January 29, 2016 (European Commission)

There is no better Brexit deal to be had.

The European Commission’s spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, confirmed it on Wednesday, when she said, “There has been no change in our position on the matter” of the Northern Ireland backstop, which is the main reason Britain’s Parliament has thrice voted down the withdrawal agreement.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, confirmed it in an op-ed for The Sunday Telegraph, in which he described the backstop as the “maximum amount of flexibility that the EU can offer to a non-member state.”

Britain isn’t listening.

Blame

Rather than accept that the only alternatives to the backstop are a customs union between Ireland and Northern Ireland that would divide the United Kingdom and a no-deal Brexit that would put the economy of the United Kingdom and the peace in Northern Ireland at risk, Johnson blames Parliament for supposedly weakening his hand by legislating against a no-deal Brexit.

This, I wrote the other day, is the Alexis Tsipras approach to negotiating with the EU: threatening to do yourself harm if the other 27 don’t give you what you want.

It didn’t work for Tsipras and it won’t work for Johnson.

But the prime minister isn’t the only one to blame. If Parliament wants to avoid a no-deal, it could vote for the deal.

Three times, then-Prime Minister Theresa May put the withdrawal agreement to a vote. Three times, anti-Brexit Conservatives, Labor, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party voted against it. Yet those same lawmakers voted against a no-deal Brexit on Tuesday.

No alternative

The backstop is designed to safeguard the EU’s single market by requiring the whole of the United Kingdom to adhere to EU customs regulations if negotiators fail to complete a free-trade deal by December 31, 2020, which is when the transition period negotiated in the withdrawal agreement expires.

From the EU’s perspective, this is generous. Britain can remain in the single market for goods without needing to pay into the EU budget or accepting free movement of people, like Norway.

The problem for Britain is that the backstop would require it to obey EU rules it would no longer have a say in making. For Brexiteers, this defeats the point of leaving.

No renegotiations

Johnson claims he is trying to renegotiate the withdrawal treaty, but Mehreen Khan of the Financial Times and Alberto Nardelli of BuzzFeed News report that EU officials have received no proposals from their British counterparts for replacing the backstop.

Nobody has yet come up with a better way to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland while simultaneously preventing the need for a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Suffering the consequences

Politico confirms what I suspected: that the EU is willing to suffer the consequences of a no-deal Brexit to protect the single market. The EU will not allow a country to effectively remain in the single market without abiding by its rules.

The EU has said as much ever since Britain voted to leave three years ago. The country’s refusal to accept this has led it a point where, Parliament’s rejection of a no-deal notwithstanding, it could crash out of the European Union without a deal in less than two months’ time.