Chances for disorderly Brexit higher than ever

“It always seems impossible until it is done,” said council president Tusk on the eve of EU summit.

The chance that the British will leave the EU on 29 March without a deal about the conditions of divorce is “more likely than ever”, Council President Donald Tusk wrote in his letter of invitation to the government leaders who are meeting tonight for a European summit on Brexit.

It is an allusion to a disaster scenario: a sudden blockade on B-day of all traffic between the United Kingdom and the European Union causing major economic damage.

Immediately afterwards Tusk came up with an important nuance: the negotiations between the UK and the EU about an orderly Brexit can still be successful, right up to the very last moment. “It always seems impossible until it is round,” said Tusk, with a negotiation wisdom, according to his words.

The border of the Northern Ireland remains the most difficult problem in the negotiations: after Brexit the new ‘hard border’ between the European Union also runs between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Both parties want to prevent this, but each in a way that is unacceptable to the other. So far all negotiations have been broken up.

That the way out of this stalemate is already found Wednesday night seems to be excluded. This summit is not negotiated with Brexit and certainly not about a complex issue such as a border agreement. “That must be a solid agreement, not a political tinkering,” says a European diplomat.

Theresa May is invited to “give her vision” at the end of the afternoon in Brussels – just like last month at the informal summit in Salzburg. Just like then, the heads of government of the other 27 Member States will politely listen to her and do not say anything.

When May is ready, they leave without another to another floor where the food is ready. There, under dinner, the ‘EU27’ will go into debate. First about the Brexit negotiations, after an update from EU negotiator Michel Barnier. And then about the preparations for ‘no-deal’. Knowing that the tension will continue to grow in the coming weeks as these preparations become more important.

Although a no-deal is more likely, the dynamic is still far from the negotiations, underline those involved in Brussels.

In his invitation, Tusk expressed the mood: the pressure is being increased precisely because it is now really time for a breakthrough, with a view to all preparations on 29 March, the retirement day.

It was also to put pressure on that same Tusk in Salzburg last month called the “moment of truth”. This meant that in the meantime sufficient progress had to be made to plan a summit in November to seal a final agreement.

That planning is no longer relevant. This weekend, the negotiation teams were close to agreement. They had a proposal including a solution for Northern Ireland – including a longer transition period after Brexit. But on Sunday Theresa May rejected that, after crisis consultation in her own circle in London. In the case of a longer transition period, according to the British, there is a fixed end date that the EU could not give.

On Monday evening, EU negotiator Barnier said he wants a negotiating agreement in “the coming weeks”. As soon as that is possible, a Brexit summit can be invested that is truly decisive. That can even be in November.

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