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Theresa May told by EU to ‘take it or leave it’ as Brexit talks risk collapse

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Theresa May
Theresa May has had a difficult week in
Brussels.

Getty

  • Exclusive: Senior EU source tells Business Insider that
    they will not budge any further in deadlocked Brexit divorce
    talks.
  • Theresa May should “take it or leave it,” the source
    says at the end of a difficult week for the prime
    minister.
  • May is under pressure from Conservative MPs not to make
    any further concessions to the EU or risk being
    ousted.
  • The prime minister faces a perilous few weeks as
    support among her parliamentary allies begins to fall
    away.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM — The EU is not willing to offer Theresa May
any further concessions in order to secure a Brexit divorce deal,
a senior EU source involved in the negotiations has told Business
Insider.

“We’ve done all we can on this side. It’s basically take it or
leave it as far as we are concerned,” the source told BI at the
European Council’s October summit in Brussels.

The comments follow a difficult week for the prime minister in
which she
suffered a major backlash
from Conservative MPs after telling
EU leaders she was willing to extend the Brexit transition period
by a “matter of months.”

May’s offer, and the strength of the backlash, caught EU
negotiators by surprise.

“It was really interesting,” a senior EU source told BI.
“The UK hasn’t formally requested it and the idea has always been
there floating around. We don’t really know why the prime
minister said what she did.”

But while the timing of May’s remarks about the transition
came as a surprise, the substance did not. 

It is a long-standing, widespread belief in Brussels that
Britain’s departure from the EU would take longer than the 21
months initially agreed between the two sides.

“Brexit is a process, not an event,” a senior source in the
European Parliament told BI.

“Switzerland has been negotiating with the EU for years on
one thing or another. Imagine what it’s going to be for the UK.
It’ll be decades, a permanent negotiation.

Switzerland has been negotiating with the EU for years on one
thing or another. Imagine what it’s going to be for the UK. It’ll
be decades, a permanent negotiation.

“And this is the easy bit. This is only the
beginning.”

The current impasse in Brexit talks hinges on the so-called
“backstop” proposals designed to prevent a hard border between
Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit.

Under May’s version of the proposal, the whole of the UK
would effectively stay in the customs union temporarily after the
21-month transition period has ended if no alternative
arrangements have been secured.

The EU is open to negotiating this sort of arrangement in
the future but is adamant that a backstop covering Northern
Ireland alone must be included in the Withdrawal Agreement
currently being negotiated.

The latter suggestion is toxic for May. Even if unlikely to
be used, the mere possibility it could be used is anathema to the
Democratic Unionist Party which props up May’s government.


Theresa May Arlene Foster
Theresa May and DUP leader
Arlene Foster

Getty

However, the feeling in Brussels is that May was always
going to have to disappoint at least one major stakeholder — and
it’s looking increasingly likely to be Arlene Foster’s DUP.
European Commission officials believe May has already lost the
support of the 10 DUP MPs in the Commons, and that any Brexit
deal will need to get through Parliament with the support of
other parties instead.

“It’s clear on this side that the DUP will vote against it
whatever happens,” an EU Commission source told BI.

It’s clear on this side that the DUP will vote against it
whatever happens.

The aim of May’s UK-wide customs union idea — in addition
to suggestions that the transition period could be extended
to three years — is to make the Northern Ireland-only backstop
less likely to come into use.

However, the prime minister will have a tough time getting
the DUP on board with this theory if the EU sticks to its current
position. While the EU negotiating team, led by Michel Barnier,
is happy to express an aspiration to negotiate a customs
arrangement in the Withdrawal Agreement, it does not want to make
it a legally binding commitment.

“We can’t bind ourselves to negotiating a customs union.
That’s basically illegal under the terms of Article 50,” a senior
European Commission source told BI. “What can do is say we will
try our best and endeavour to negotiate it.”

“We are not going to negotiate a customs union in
isolation, ” they said, adding that “a customs union is part of
a much wider economic framework” to be negotiated once
Article 50 is out of the way. 


boris johnson conservatives jacob rees mogg ian duncan smith
Conservative
Brexiteers are threatening to oust the prime
minister.

Dan Kitwood/Getty
Images


None of this will matter of course if May is unable to
persuade a majority of parliamentarians to back whatever she
finally agrees with the EU.

Already the prime minister’s suggestion that the transition
period could be extended caused an almighty stir in
Westminster
, with Conservative MPs openly calling for her to
stand down.

This is the litmus test for taking back control… this is the
killer moment.

But an even bigger row looms for pro-Leave Tory MPs on the
issue of whether the eventual backstop is time-limited.

This is a big deal for Brexiteers. “This isn’t just
one more little compromise from the prime minister to get a deal
over the line… it is the litmus test for taking back control…
this is the killer moment,
a Cabinet source told BI last
week.

Pro-Brexit Conservative MPs fear that if May’s preferred
customs union backstop is signed off without a fixed end date,
the UK could be trapped within the EU’s customs arrangements
indefinitely, unable to sign new free trade deals.

Significantly, and to the dismay of Brexiteers, May has
pretty much accepted there will be no time-limit. That’s what she has reportedly
told Ireland.
Tellingly she refused to rule it out when
questioned about it at her Brussels press conference on
Thursday.

For this reason, the next few weeks look incredibly
dangerous for May. Cabinet resignations are a strong possibility,
and the threat of Tory MPs sending enough letters to challenge
her leadership is high. Meanwhile, the DUP is threatening to vote
down the Budget this month in an aggressive attempt to force the
prime minister to think again.

This is all deeply worrying for politicians on the other
side of the English Channel who fear that May could prove simply
too weak to get a deal through.

Fears that May could be replaced by a more hardline prime
minister, or that the entire negotiations could be derailed by a
snap general election disturb EU negotiators, with just months to
go until Britain leaves the EU.

Our Brexit Insider Facebook group is the best place for up-to-date news and analysis about Britain’s departure from the EU, direct from Business Insider’s political reporters. Join here.

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