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The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Tuesday morning that a disorderly Brexit on 12 April is becoming more of a certainty despite Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempts to negotiate a way out of the political impasse.
“No deal was never our desire or intended scenario, but the EU 27 is now prepared,” Barnier said while adding that the EU-27 is willing to accept a Customs Union, a Norway-style relationship, or a second referendum on EU membership but there is no room to amend May’s Withdrawal Agreement.
“To be clear, during any long extension there will be no renegotiation of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement,” Barnier who also added that the EU will not renegotiate the Irish backstop as demanded by the former Brexit Secretary Dominique Raab.
Any renegotiation would require the UK either revoking Article 50 or offer a substantially different alternative proposal. However, the rejection of all positive alternatives proposed by different MPs on 1 April allows May to offer the Withdrawal Agreement as the only option available.
The “indicative votes” process testing the will of MPs in the House of Commons failed for the second time to produce a positive alternative, largely because different groups were unwilling to move from their preferred option.
However, as voting patterns are no longer defined by party lines, there is room for a synthesis – between the minimalist proposal for a Customs Union, the more extensive call for Single Market Membership, and the demand for a second referendum.
All three proposals fared better than the Withdrawal Agreement but did not quite cross the line of a parliamentary majority. The leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, suggested the same proposals should be put to the test for a third time so long as they provide substantial justification for a longer delay.
There are now two options. First, the government admits defeat and calls a general election or May convinces the cabinet to push forward with the Withdrawal Agreement for the fourth time.
Hardline Leave campaigners refuse to support the Withdrawal Agreement so long as it retains the Irish backstop and suggests the UK should leave on 12 April without a withdrawal agreement in place. These are in tune with the views of the Democratic Unionist Party, whose parliamentary support is essential for the government.
The snap elections scenario is not guaranteed to resolve the deadlock. Polls suggest that Labour has a clear lead but is short of forming a government. And campaigning on a platform promising a second referendum could harm the opposition’s chances in northern England, which voted en mass to leave the EU.
Last week 170 Conservatives MPs, including 10 cabinet ministers, wrote to May demanding that the UK must leave the EU without asking for a further extension. At the same time, the UK’s highest-ranking civil servant, Sir Mark Sedwill, wrote a 14-page letter to the cabinet outlining the consequences of a no-deal exit. Published by the Daily Mail, the letter warns of a 10% surge in food prices and the collapse of several businesses, the depreciation of the pound, and a crisis more “harmful” than 2008 financial meltdown.