Why is Europe against changing the Brexit agreement?

British Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to go back to Brussels and reopen negotiations on the withdrawal agreement with the European Union after MPs on Tuesday voted in favour of replacing the backstop – a safety net to prevent a hard Irish border – with “alternative arrangements”.

MPs also approved a non-binding amendment against leaving the EU without a deal.

On January 15, parliament overwhelmingly rejected May’s withdrawal agreement by 432 votes to 202.

After that resounding defeat, the result this week was hailed by some commentators as a success for May, who backed the amendment tabled by Conservative MP Graham Brady, seen as an attempt to get Conservative politicians against the backstop to vote for her deal. 

May is to take any request to Brussels on a yet unspecified date, hoping that parliament’s support of the backstop amendment will serve to persuade EU negotiators she can get a deal through and avoid a no-deal scenario. 

However, the amendment does not come with any guarantee that MPs will vote in favour of any revised deal on February 14, a day after May is due to report back to parliament.

European reaction

EU officials have repeatedly ruled out reopening negotiations with the United Kingdom.

Minutes after the vote, a spokesperson for European Council President Donald Tusk said: “The withdrawal agreement is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement, and the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation.”

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, said Tuesday’s vote had “further increased the risk of a disorderly exit” while the clock keeps ticking towards March 29, the date of the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU.

Until the EU has sight of what those changes are, I can’t see them moving their position. What is clear, is that no one has come up with proposals that are acceptable to the EU that would replace the backstop.

David Phinnemore, professor of European Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast

The backstop, a compromise to avoid a hard border in the island of Ireland, is seen as one of the main stumbling blocks in the way of achieving a deal with the EU that the UK parliament can approve.

Eurosceptic conservative MPs argue that without a time limit, the backstop would dilute Brexit by potentially binding the UK in a customs union with the EU in perpetuity.

“There’s obviously clear opposition in the Tory party to elements of the withdrawal agreement,” David Phinnemore, a professor of European Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast, told Al Jazeera. 

“Whether that translates into greater bargaining power is very much open to question. Until the EU has sight of what those changes are, I can’t see them moving their position. What is clear, is that no one has come up with proposals that are acceptable to the EU that would replace the backstop,” he added.

“There are opinion polls that suggest the majority [of people] in northern Ireland is comfortable with the terms of withdrawal,” Phinnemore explained.

“A lot of people do appreciate that if the backstop were to be enforced, there would be increased controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in terms of the movement of goods, but there are going to be changes in customs as a consequence of Brexit. I think more people would say that is the cost they are willing to bear, rather than see a hard border in the island of Ireland.”

A hard border in Ireland would have economic as well as political implications, strangling local agriculture, which relies heavily on cross-border trade.

Various sectors of the business community in the UK have called on the government to rule out a no deal, which would mean that existing trade agreements between the UK and the EU would end overnight. Countries across the EU have also announced beginning preparations for such a scenario.

“Italy’s exports towards the UK count towards five percent of the country’s total exports,” Antonio Villafranca, co-head of the Europe and Global Governance programme at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) in Italy told Al Jazeera. 

“I don’t agree with those who say this will have no effect. We have a trade surplus with the UK of 12 billion euros ($13.7bn), including some key export sectors,” he continued.

Figures by the Italian Statistics Agency (ISTAT) published this week show Italy’s economy fell into a recession as it shrank by 0.2 percent in the last three months of 2018. The whole of the eurozone is facing sluggish growth, with Germany – its largest economy – expected to grow at the slowest pace in six years in 2019, according to the country’s economy ministry.

The problem is not what the EU would lose from a no deal. It’s that if avoiding a no deal it’s going to be more damaging, it’s not going to do it.

Benjamin Martill, UK-EU relations researcher at LSE

Estimates by the Dutch Court of Audit have put the cost of a no-deal Brexit for the Netherlands at 2.3 billion euros ($2.6bn) by 2023. 

“Certainly there would be consequences for Italy, for Ireland most of all, for the Netherlands and Germany. 

“But repercussions would be far worse for the UK as 50 percent of its trade is with the EU. Add to that 16 percent of trade it has with non-EU countries at zero tariffs through EU deals,” Villafranca continued. “And so far, the EU has demonstrated absolute unity on this.” 

For Benjamin Martill, a Dahrendorf Forum post-doctoral fellow at the London School of Economics researching UK-EU relations, what the EU stands to lose from a bad deal outweighs the losses it would incur from a no deal scenario. 

If the EU wants to prevent a no deal outcome, it could cause damage by throwing Ireland “under the bus at the last minute”, he said.

Such a move would prove the Brexiteers right when they said the EU couldn’t hold its nerves, he added, “and would … open up again this problem of giving Britain a seemingly good deal, and inviting all of the other member states to come out and say, we’d like a deal like this”.

“That moral hazard is still very much there. So the problem is not what the EU would lose from a no deal. It’s that if avoiding a no deal, it’s going to be more damaging, it’s not going to do it.”

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