Skip to Content

Coffee House

Is Emmanuel Macron about to call Theresa May’s bluff on the Brexit backstop?

16 February 2019

3:59 PM

16 February 2019

3:59 PM

The EU has agreed a standard exit clause on almost every treaty it has ever negotiated – so why not the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement? Olly Robbins made a grave error in failing to have such a clause inserted, and Theresa May made a worse one in signing up to a deal that Parliament was never going to accept. 

But it’s easily fixed: just make it temporary, something that can be done in one sentence adding an exit clause, and Parliament would (probably) agree the deal. So what’s the problem? It seems that other EU leaders are beginning to wonder. The Times today reports that they are willing to compromise on the Withdrawal Agreement. The acid test of all this is whether Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney-General, will agree that the changes make it temporary. It seems that Emmanuel Macron is pushing for the change.

Which is more than Theresa May seems to be doing. Since Parliament’s amendment passed, she does seem to be guilty of what Keir Starmer says: playing for time, running down the clock. Perhaps to wait until the last minute of the eleventh hour and say it’s her deal or no deal – and have Parliament crawl back to her, accepting what it so emphatically rejected.

We don’t hear May saying that the UK is one sentence away from a deal. She’s suspiciously vague about what she wants. But the EU is well within its rights to offer an standard exit clause on the backstop – as per Parliament’s request. That would bring this pantomime to a close, end the prospect of no-deal and allow everyone to move on to the next stage of talks. As far as Macron is concerned, if would also remove the uncertainty from Calais and so much of the northern regions. A no-deal scenario would hit France hard: why should Macron risk this, for the sake of a daft political game? In the leader column of this week’s magazine, we quote a German report saying 100,000 German jobs could be on the line if no-deal goes through and cuts EU exports to the UK. Why would Merkel risk that?

Theresa May’s ego is a much underrated force in British politics: she wants parliament to eat its words and back the deal it rejected. She might be prepared to risk no-deal in pursuit of this objective. But the EU, in offering a basic exit clause, could end this drama at any moment.

Update: The French government has put out a statement saying it has not changed its view that the Withdrawal Agreement is not negotiable. But this does not rule out an exit clause being bolted on, or some other means of making it temporary, so compromise is agreed that way.

Show comments