Do you know that the Brexit Summit you keep reading about – what Theresa May hopes for this month when the UK exit agreement is finalized by the EU?
The word about the European vine is that, even if the summit will take place again in November, which is not guaranteed at all since the negotiations remain blocked beyond the Irish border – the prime minister may not even be invited.
How can it be, I hear you cry. How can a Brexit seal-bargain-bargain summit of EU leaders not have the British Prime Minister present?
"Well, why would the EU solve a problem in one go, when is the possibility of dragging it out?" a European diplomat put it to me drastically.
The rationale behind a Brexit summit without the UK, however, actually stems from the fact that EU leaders will have to digest a lot of documents in advance.
It will include the withdrawal agreement (alias the EU-UK divorce agreement), the political declaration on future relations between the EU and the UK and the fine print of an EU-United Kingdom customs partnership United which is quickly organized by the negotiators to act as – an insurance policy intended to be used, to ensure that there will not be a difficult border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, regardless of relations between the EU and the United Kingdom after Brexit.
More from Katya: On the edge of a nervous breakdown of the Brexit?
And the leaders will not have much time to examine these politically, legally and economically important documents, if there is a Brexit summit this month, for the simple reason that none of the aforementioned documents has been completed so far.
Thus, a number of EU countries now want the Brexit Summit to be an opportunity for their leaders to ask questions and objections to Michel Barnier, the EU's leading Brexit negotiator.
Another, later, Brexit summit will follow with Theresa May in order to stamp the deal. The current thinking in Brussels is that this could be attached to the regular, non-Brexit-specific summit of EU leaders on 12 and 13 December.
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But all this European reflection is for the birds if there is no agreement on the Irish border guarantee.
The EU and UK negotiators are, once again, in a "tunnel" of 24-hour interviews, all sold out, in an attempt to exclude all political and social noise from the media and to find a solution.
The apparent optimism of the British government this week about a short-distance deal – with Theresa May ready to convene her cabinet even just this weekend – is not reflected in EU sources close to the negotiations.
I have always used the square anchorage and the analogy of the round hole for the enigma of the Irish border Brexit.
But now, after long heated and partly fruitful negotiations, the peg has become smaller but also the hole.
The EU now accepts the UK proposal that the entire United Kingdom remain in a European customs partnership until a close trade relationship has been forged between the EU and the UK, leading to any discussion of a customs border between the two – which affects the island of Ireland – becoming irrelevant.
Sticking points are now mainly two – or maybe I should say two and a half times:
- The EU countries that trade the most with the United Kingdom, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, want to ensure that, if it were to be used, the customs partnership now being developed would not be beneficial to the United Kingdom. They want the United Kingdom to subscribe to what is known in terms of trade as a level playing field. This affects the common restrictions on state aid, for example, as well as certain labor laws and environmental laws. There is also talk of an attempt by the EU to reach an agreement on the maintenance of fishing rights in the waters of the United Kingdom as part of the agreement.
- British critics of the customs partnership – like the Brexit secretary Dominic Raab – say the UK would need a unilateral exit mechanism to ensure that it would not always be tied to the EU's customs regime, which, you will remember, it makes the United Kingdom unable to make any commercial agreement independent of all.
The EU argues, however, that it would not be an adequate guarantee to avoid a difficult border between Northern Ireland and Ireland if the United Kingdom could waive this guarantee, namely the UK's customs backup plan, every time that he thought it appropriate.
But the United Kingdom then claims that if the EU co-regulates Irish support, then Brussels will have the power to potentially keep the UK tied to its customs regime for the foreseeable future. Which is not very similar to the return to national sovereignty that has been promised to those who voted Leave in the EU referendum.
- 2.5 There are divergences in the UK government constituencies about whether the Irish border guarantee should constitute two different customs plans with the EU – one for Northern Ireland, which already has decentralized powers, and one for rest of the United Kingdom that would be easier to disengage.
To sum up: the agreement has not yet been made.
But if and when it will be – with a chat about the UK parliamentary vote until December 21st – my European contacts will tell me that the EU countries will start working in January 2019 to establish a new mandate for the Brussels negotiators , which in theory will start working on the new EU-UK Brexit trade agreement from April 1st.
Michel Barnier and his infamous notice of change in expired trading time will no longer be part of the proceedings after the day of Brexit, I have been told.
The UK will therefore be a third country, the EU term for those outside the club, and trade negotiations will be far less important, says Brussels.
Look at this space.