Brexit: The View from the Bishop’s Office

The Brexit end-game is upon us. It’s time for cool heads and steady nerves. Over the summer the pace and atmosphere of the Brexit negotiations here in Brussels have changed remarkably in a positive direction. For quite some time the greatest negotiations appeared to be those of the British Government negotiating with itself. But since the fateful cabinet awayday at Chequers, our continental partners at last have a clear and realistic voice speaking for Britain, and bluster and grandstanding have been largely confined to the backbenches. At the same time the tone of communications from the chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, appears to have become less rigid. For some time he has been adamant (taking his cue from the guidelines given to him by the leaders of the 27 Member States who will remain after Brexit) that Britain’s only option was to adopt off-the-shelf one of the trade relationship deals currently applying to neighbouring non-EU countries or major economic players elsewhere in the world. He was warning that Mrs May’s ‘red lines’ meant several of these were off the table. ‘No cherry picking’ was the constant refrain and ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it.’ But now there is talk of an ‘ambitious partnership’ which ‘has no precedent’. Although speaking to German car manufacturers last week he warned that delays for checks as car components criss-cross across the Channel could not be ruled out at present.

Yet, at the very moment when the likelihood of an amicable deal being concluded is at its greatest, with both sides seeming to have the will to go the extra mile, the media on both sides of the Channel is awash with information about a broad range of unpleasant consequences in the event of a ‘no deal scenario’. This is very unsettling for all those of us who felt reassured by the agreed text of the vast majority of the Withdrawal Treaty – which gives rights for British citizens currently living on the continent broadly equivalent to those that currently apply to everyone through EU freedom of movement rules. But, of course, these rights and safeguards only come into force if there is a completely agreed Withdrawal Treaty before Brexit takes place.

Of the reasons why (beyond purely the limited time left) both sides in the Brexit negotiations have chosen this time to reveal their contingency plans for a no deal situation, one can only speculate. It could be to signal that they have the option to walk away from the negotiating table and therefore have a stronger hand to drive a hard bargain. But it could equally well be that they wish to prepare people to accept more willingly the eventual deal, which will inevitably involve some compromise of initial negotiating positions, in a sense of relief that the awful alternative of no deal has been avoided. The clock is ticking, sufficient time needs to be allowed once a Treaty text is agreed for ratification by the British Parliament and the European Parliament. The summit meeting of Prime Ministers and Presidents fixed for 18th October in Brussels has up to now been seen as the deadline for agreement, although there is talk beginning of a possible extra summit meeting in November devoted to Brexit alone.

Even before the cabinet charm offensive of visiting national leaders of the 27 continuing EU member states began, there were signs of a willingness by at least some of them to perhaps be more flexible towards the UK position, now that it at last had one! They have to balance up the need on the one hand not to set an attractive precedent for other member states to be tempted to follow, particularly with the rise of Eurosceptic populism in a few of them, and on the other hand a wish to avoid, if at all possible, the negative consequences for their own countries of the EU block’s second largest economy crashing out of the Union in an unregulated way.

The EU Prime Ministers and Presidents have their next meeting in two weeks’ time (Sept 20th) in the current presidency state Austria. Although this is billed as an ‘informal’ meeting there will certainly be discussion of Brexit at some stage with a report back on the negotiations from Michel Barnier. Options for reaching a deal with the UK will be spelt out and leaders will need to let him know how much room for manoeuvre they are willing to give him in order to conclude the negotiations.

Please pray for both sides in the negotiations, at the level of officials (under the radar) as they are seeking to find a constructive way forward. But the final decision rests in the hands of the national leaders. May they act with wisdom and proper concern for the well being of all their citizens.

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