With only 50 days left until Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May returned to Brussels for yet another round of talks desperately seeking “alternative arrangements” for the Irish backstop. However, from the few options that are floated as possible solutions, none has really raised hopes of being the one.
Renewed proposals for a time limit to the backstop or the possibility for the UK to unilaterally withdraw from the backstop were strongly – and repeatedly – rejected by the EU. Suggestions of a technological solution, as proposed by the unlikely group of Tory Remainers and Brexiteers in their Malthouse compromise, received the same reaction.EU Deputy Chief Negotiator Sabine Weyand put it very clearly, no such technological solution will be possible in the next few years.
But is that really the case?
Only three days after Weyand’s statement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel threw what must have felt like a lifeline to many Brexiteers in Britain. Although she does not want to change the backstop in any way, she is “very hopeful” that the problem can be solved through a combination of technology and a sophisticated customs scheme. This solution could come as an added clause to the Withdrawal Agreement which commits both the UK and the EU to use the planned transition period to come up with alternative, high-tech solutions to the border.
Even more encouraging, the idea was echoed by EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier who tweeted that the “EU is ready to work alternative solutions during transition”.
The truth sometimes hurts
Despite the more hopeful and conciliatory signals by some representatives from the EU side, others did not shy away from voicing their actual thoughts. The President of the European Council Donald Tusk infuriated many in the UK when he said, “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely”.
While European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker refrained from adding any more fuel, Guy Verhofstadt, the Chair from the Brexit Steering Group in the European Parliament could not resist. He tweeted, “Well, I doubt Lucifer would welcome them, as after what they did to Britain, they would even manage to divide hell”.
Although both statements might not have been overly helpful in the run-up to May’ visit in Brussels, she still sought a debate of various options on how to change the backstop to make it acceptable to the British Parliament. EU officials responded by reiterating that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened. However, they offered to add wording to the Political Declaration to make it more ambitious. Overall, there is no breakthrough in sight.
Further talks were agreed for late February, with May promising to deliver Brexit “on time”, despite the widespread view that an extension will be needed.