Michel Barnier’s press conference responding to the UK government’s Brexit white paper will have been music to the ears of ‘no deal’ Brexiteers. After Theresa May pushed her Cabinet and premiership to the point of near collapse with her Chequers proposals for a softer Brexit, the EU’s Chief negotiator has today responded to her efforts with a heavy dose of scepticism.
Barnier began by trying to play nice. He said he welcomed the development of the UK government’s position – he understood that it was the result of a debate and, for some, that debate is still ongoing. He said that the proposals from May contained several things Brussels could get on board with and singled out security as one such.
However, he then went into detail over the ‘questions’ the white paper had raised on customs. Barnier questioned whether May’s proposal that the UK would be in the single market for goods – but not services – was consistent with the integrity of the EU’s single market (spoiler: it isn’t). He asked whether May’s plan for tariff collection and goods check was even feasible – and said that the EU would not agree to a plan that would increase bureaucracy. As for the idea of services being outside the single market so the UK can diverge, Barnier questioned whether the EU would go along with something that could undercut their business interests. While he was at it, Barnier raised the question of whether May’s customs proposal would increase instances of fraud.
One small ray of light for Theresa May arrived in Barnier’s comments on the backstop. Although he stressed that not enough progress had been made. He did seem to soften his language on the issue – said his side wanted to de-dramatise the issue and were open to any solution.
All in all, however, the conference raised the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. It’s clear the EU will not – as things stand – plump for the Chequers’ proposal. Andrea Leadsom has today said that May cannot weaken her deal any further. It follows that today’s conference has made a ‘no deal’ Brexit even more likely.