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Ever since 2013, when David Cameron first mooted the idea of holding a referendum on leaving the European Union, Europe has watched Brexit Britain with wide-eyed incredulity.
Now that a draft Withdrawal Agreement is finally in hand, the mood is changing. Brexit might still be regarded with regret — Germanys Angela Merkel said Tuesday it would leave a “deep wound” — but it can no longer be denied.
As the Brexit process enters the “endgame,” policymakers and the public on both sides of the Channel need to accept that its actually happening. And here, the EUs role should be clear too: Help get the deal over the line so we can all move on.
In the circumstances, the draft deal on the table is a good one. It does the job of extricating the U.K. from its rights and obligations as an EU member state by March next year. It keeps collateral damage to a minimum. The accompanying political declaration on the future relationship identifies clearly enough where the U.K. will end up — namely in a formal association agreement, which will form the basis for a dynamic new partnership.
The EU should also make clear that it will only deal with the U.K. government — and that there is no other viable government-in-waiting.
But the timetable to conclude all the different elements of Brexit is very tight.
EU leaders are expected to confirm the deals terms and flesh out the political declaration at a special summit on November 25. Because of chaotic delays on the British side, the EU27 have not had much chance to reflect on their future without the Brits, and countries that havent been paying close attention to negotiations may now raise more queries about the deal. Amid the general climate of nervousness about the EU becoming weaker and smaller, expect last-minute squalls about things like Danish fish. Some will express concern about the EUs concessions of a U.K.-wide temporary customs arrangement, fearing undercutting by British business.
Still, there is little doubt that the Council will eventually decide to approve the deal — a decision that in any case does not need to be unanimous, but could be carried by 20 countries representing 65 percent of the EU population. The European Parliament is also likely to give the deal its nod of approval, as its key stipulations — regarding citizens rights and the need to avoid a hard border in Ireland — were met in the draft deal.
What is true among EU leaders is also true among most MEPs: They see Brexit as a major distraction from other important business and are impatient to move on. Departing British MEPs may be missed on an individual basis but not collectively. Many are debating what will be possible to achieve once the Brits have left.
EU Brexit chief negociator Michel Barnier hands the draft Brexit agreement to European Council President Donald Tusk | Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images
If Europe looks unanimous in its desire to get Brexit over the finish line, the biggest obstacle lies in Westminster, where there is not yet a discernible majority for the critical “meaningful vote” that must approve the deal before the government can introduce it into law.
A dedicated campaign of persuasion is underway on behalf of the government — and here, the EU shouldnt shy away from lending a helping hand.
The EU institutions stood aside ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum, allowing all sorts of fake news to develop around the facts of EU membership. It would be a mistake to let the same thing happen again.
The draft agreement is long and technical and, to the untrained eye, unintelligible. The accompanying political declaration is shorter and much more readable, and deserves to be shared and promoted more widely. EU leaders should use it as a script and avoid deviating from it — idle talk in Europe costs votes in Westminster.
Indeed, theres a strong case to be made its a good deal for both parties: The Brexiteers main criteria have been met — in that the U.K. is leaving the EU — but there is also a great deal that should appeal to Remainers, including the EUs insistence on continued respect for EU social and environmental standards, and the proposed customs arrangements.
European leaders should confirm therell be no extension of the Article 50 process merely to accommodate a second attempt at the negotiations — with the clock ticking away to March 29, Michel Barniers deal is it. This is in Europes interest too, as far-right parties across the bloc would make merry at the sight of the U.K. being trapped inside the EU against the expressed popular will of the British voters.
Neither should the EU27 stoke British hopes for a second referendum — it would prolong political uncertainty and cause financial instability.
The EU should also make clear that it will only deal with the U.K. government — and that there is no other viable government-in-waiting. Indeed, the Labour Partys leadership is in a terrible mess over Brexit.
Some British MPs believe that the House of Commons should take over from the prime minister in late January if she loses her meaningful vote. From Brussels, however, this looks like a fantasy — not least because there is no discernible majority in the Commons for any alternative to May.
The unholy alliance of arch-Brexiteers and ultra-Remainers that could crash the Barnier deal could never produce a set of proposals that would be acceptable to the EU, and the spectacle of Mays Northern Ireland backers — the Democratic Unionist Party — opposing the deal causes special amazement in Brussels. Barniers deal keeps Northern Ireland effectively in two customs unions at once. DUP hostility to it would rely on an unusual combination of bigotry and stupidity.
Britains Prime Minister Theresa May gives a statement outside 10 Downing Street | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images
Neither should the EU27 stoke British hopes for a second referendum — it would prolong political uncertainty and cause financial instability without any certainty that the outcome would settle Europes British problem one way or the other.
The EU needs to push to get the deal done according to the agreed procedure and schedule. Then we can all try and get down to business, by way of a bit of temporizing and compromise, to build a durable and trustful partnership.
Andrew Duff is president of the Spinelli Group and visiting fellow at the European Policy Centre.
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