In Depth

Brussels to ‘break up’ Brexit negotiating team

Further discussion on May’s withdrawal agreement looks unlikely despite what Tory leader contenders say

Brussels is moving to “break up” its current Brexit negotiating team, in what is seen as another indication that it has no plans to re-open discussions on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has emerged as a leading contender to take over from outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, while his number two, Sabine Weyand, who is often described as the brains behind the withdrawal agreement, is set to take up a new job running the EU’s trade department next week.

There are currently no plans to replace Weyand and, while EU officials say the “Taskforce 50” negotiating team has not been officially disbanded and still exists, “the departure represents a move of resources to other areas”, says The Independent’s Jon Stone.

The “break up” is “the most concrete sign yet that the EU has absolutely no intention of re-opening talks on the treaty”, he adds.

EU leaders have repeatedly said the withdrawal agreement was not open for renegotiation, a position that was again reiterated at the latest informal EU summit.

Speaking on his LBC show from Brussels, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage said this week: “Every single person here in the European Commission, and leading groups in the European Parliament, will not change by one dot or comma that withdrawal agreement.”

Despite EU leaders and officials sticking to the same line, the vast majority of Tory leadership contenders have said they would seek to re-open the agreement thrashed out over two years in the hopes of securing concessions, most notably to the hated Irish border backstop.

Reuters reports that “any successor to May will have to accept that the Brexit divorce deal she agreed will not be ratified by the current British parliament so they will have to find a solution to the Irish border issue that upset many lawmakers”.

“The EU will not give up the backstop,” says Peter Foster in The Daily Telegraph, “but it might find itself in a delicate position if a British Prime Minister would, say, attach a five-year time-limit to the Irish backstop as a condition of passing the Withdrawal Agreement - and demonstrate a clear majority for this in Parliament.”

Foster notes that the EU has repeatedly ruled out a time limit but says there were behind-the-scenes discussions about the idea before May first lost the vote on her deal by a large margin in the Commons.

Others, though, have rubbished the idea that a new occupant in No. 10 would change anything. Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel told the BBC on Tuesday that replacing May was not a magic solution to the Brexit problem.

“That would be too easy: change the UK prime minister, change the Brexit deal. That’s not how it’s going to work,” he said.

The Financial Times says: “If it proves impossible to renegotiate a deal that can be sold to MPs, the next Conservative prime minister may be confronted with the problem of making good the promises made to Tory party activists during the leadership contest: leaving without a deal on October 31.”

Yet since the largely pro-Remain Westminster Parliament has already voted against a no-deal exit “any prime minister who tried to proceed against the wishes of MPs would risk constitutional and political chaos”, says the paper.

“How to resolve this looming clash is thus becoming the central question facing every Tory leadership candidate in the race for Number 10,” says Politico’s Jack Blanchard.

“Boris Johnson believes parliament would ultimately balk at passing a law to revoke Article 50, which may be the only method to legally tie a prime minister’s hands. Dominic Raab insists parliament simply does not have the power to do it at all. Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock say the threat is real, and that such a clash must be avoided as it would lead to a general election.”

This has led The Times’ Danny Finkelstein to conclude that the only way out of the impasse is another referendum.

“No Conservative MP wants a general election,” he says. “Boris Johnson might well lose even his own seat in an election. It’s really quite possible that in an election fought before the government has delivered Brexit, the Conservatives will not merely be defeated but actually flattened.

“So if the government cannot get no deal through without an election, can’t change the deal, can’t get the deal through and can’t fight an election until it has achieved Brexit, there is only one option left. A referendum.”

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