The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As pro- and anti-Brexiteers unite in distaste for deal, Brussels shrugs

Protesters unfurl a banner saying “Stop Tory Brexit” and “Free Movement For All” on London’s Westminster Bridge on Thursday.
Protesters unfurl a banner saying “Stop Tory Brexit” and “Free Movement For All” on London’s Westminster Bridge on Thursday. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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BRUSSELS — The draft divorce deal between Britain and the European Union has united the ­polarized British pro- and anti-Brexit camps in horror at a plan that will strip London of its voice in E.U. decisions but could leave in place many of the obligations of membership.

In the rest of Europe, the angst has been met with an impatient shrug — and some disdain toward Brits who thought it could turn out any other way.

Britain is quitting the club, so it also had to lose the benefits of holding the membership card, according to negotiators, politicians and analysts. But they say Britain’s own demands undermined its goal of “taking back control” and necessitated that it remain tethered to the E.U.

European leaders say there are no alternatives that would satisfy British desires — offering a stark choice between swallowing this plan or crashing out of the E.U. with no safety net at all, a prospect that could spark economic chaos around the world.

Most observers agree that the Europeans had the upper hand in the deal, as a normally fractious bloc of 27 nations stood unusually united behind its team of Brexit negotiators. But that nominal victory has been little solace for European leaders who never wanted Britain to leave and still believe that they will all be hurt once it departs.

“What was always an illusion on the Brexiteer side was that the kind of world you could return to was when Britain had an empire and was a global superpower in the world economy,” said Fabian Zuleeg, the chief executive of the European Policy Center, a Brussels think tank with close ties to the E.U. 

Those on the pro-E.U. side have argued that Brexit would make Britain weaker, since it would leave Britain with no formal ability to influence decisions in its most important export market.

“Somehow the recognition that those things were not a negotiation tactic, but that they actually are just simple statements of fact, is finally starting to sink in, but probably too late,” Zuleeg said.

In London, Prime Minister Theresa May is facing a rebellion from lawmakers in her Conservative Party. By Friday, at least 23 Conservative members of Parliament had signed letters demanding a confidence vote that could topple her from office, according to British reporters. Forty-eight letters are required to trigger a vote.

May tried to stabilize her cabinet Friday by installing a third Brexit secretary, after the first two quit in protest. Stephen Barclay is a former junior health minister who voted to leave the E.U. A BBC politics editor described him as “ultra-loyal, having never rebelled against the government.”

Many Brexiteers want May to rip up this deal — the product of more than a year of talks — and start again, even as the calendar dwindles ahead of Britain’s March 29 exit date.

Brexiteers also complain that the E.U. has singled them out for punishment to set an example to other countries that might contemplate divorce from Brussels. E.U. officials retort that British leaders have fouled up the Brexit process so sufficiently on their own that they don’t expect other countries to follow London’s precedent.

Negotiators warn there is little further to be achieved at their level, and even some Brexit advocates say this is the best deal under the circumstances. “We think this is the best we can do collectively with the constraints we have on both sides,” said an E.U. official briefing reporters about the deal under ground rules of anonymity.

In the end, the direction of the deal was profoundly shaped by tiny Northern Ireland: Britain wants its territory to remain borderless with the Republic of Ireland, to preserve the peace, and with the rest of the United Kingdom, to maintain national unity. 

“If what you want is to deliver on leaving the European Union, and have frictionless trade in goods at the border for the next few years until a future free-trade agreement comes into force, and have control of our own immigration policy, and keep the United Kingdom together, all at the same time — well then, a deal is going to look pretty much like this one seems to look like,” former Tory foreign secretary William Hague said this week. “It isn’t going to be dramatically different from that.” 

The deal maintains E.U. rules and obligations in Britain during a transitional period lasting until the end of 2020 as negotiators hammer out plans for future relations between the two sides. Britain would be on the hook for the financial commitments it made while it was a member — about $50 billion in total — plus a significantly smaller amount for the time it is in the transitional deal.

But if the talks for future relations fall apart, Britain would be bound into the E.U.’s customs union indefinitely — a status that has set off alarms in London because it would effectively strip Britain of its ability to forge its own trade deals, the precise opposite of the goal of many Brexit supporters.

If that “backstop” went into effect, Britain would have to abide by E.U. tariffs, essentially handing off its negotiating power to Brussels. And E.U. negotiators say the customs union is probably going to be the basis for negotiations over the future relationship anyway, causing further heartburn in London.

Europeans say the arrangement is the only way to avoid borders around Northern Ireland — and several countries, including France and Spain, say it is already a concession. They fear the British could use the tariff-free access to the E.U. market to undercut European businesses, and they have sought to pile on provisions that would ensure British producers would face the same regulations as their European competitors.

“There is worry in a number of capitals that the Brits or companies or others would take advantage of the situation,” said Josef Janning, the head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Amid the British infighting, European leaders have said the discussions are closed.

“It is highly unlikely that we will make important changes to these proposals,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Friday, echoing comments from German Chancellor Angela Merkel a day earlier. “We have talked about this for so long. Everybody has been heavily involved. We will have a good look at parts of the proposals, but major changes seem unlikely to me.”

Alongside their preparations for a Nov. 25 summit to approve the Brexit deal, E.U. leaders are prepping no-deal plans in case the British Parliament rejects the negotiated agreement and Britain crashes out. That possibility would cause chaos on both sides of the English Channel, with halted trade turning highways into parking lots for trucks and airplanes grounded on their runways.

In the end, analysts said, if Britain sticks with this deal, it will get at least one thing out of Brexit: E.U. citizens will no longer be able to move there as they please. The loss of trade sovereignty may be the price tag.

“The U.K. created its red lines,” said Jonathan Portes, an expert on the economics of Brexit at King’s College London. “And the biggest red line of all was the U.K. wanted to end free movement of people.”

Booth reported from London. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.

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