EU leaders 'want rid' of 'Brexit poison'

Now that I've had the opportunity to review the extraordinary and historic events that took place here in Brussels, and talk to people involved in the talks, I have a new take on what happened and why.

The big drivers for why the EU's 27 leaders came up with their new formula for determining when and whether we Brexit are:

  • EU leaders had - and have - zero confidence that the Prime Minister will win her meaningful vote next week, and they quite rationally decided it was unreasonable for them to determine in conditions of extreme pressure in seven days whether we we are falling out at 11pm on the Friday.

  • Many EU leaders are utterly fed up with how our Brexit mess is infecting their domestic political debates and derailing their attempts to forge an agenda to address the huge challenges faced by the EU. "They increasingly see Brexit as poisoning the EU and European nations" said a participant in the talks. "They want rid of it".

  • They did not dare set 22 May as the new default Brexit day, for fear that if the UK exited with no deal as late at that, elections for the European Parliament which begin the following day would be utterly overshadowed and skewed by the anticipated first-day no-deal chaos.

  • Significant numbers of EU leaders are admitting privately that the time has come to "cut the UK loose", that the prolonged Brexit uncertainty is damaging both their nations and the EU, and that therefore a no-deal Brexit on 12 April may be the best of assorted bad options.

To be clear, some EU leaders - like President Macron of France - want Brexit settled one way or another soon so that they (or rather, he) can get back to pursuing the agenda of deepening and strengthening the institutions of the EU.

Others just want to make a lesson of the UK so that the eurosceptic parties in their own countries are shown the harsh reality of exiting the EU.

French President Emmanuel Macron, pictured with Theresa May, wants Brexit settled one way or the other. Credit: PA

But the important point for MPs, as they ponder how to use the three weeks remaining to the new Brexit day of 12 April, is that there is no appetite for more dithering, obfuscation and delay from the UK.

So MPs have to make up their minds NOW on which of the available options to pursue, and to be flexible fast if their first choice disappears.

The options are:

  • To back the PM's deal when it returns for a third meaningful vote, probably on Tuesday. Truthfully, as EU leaders believe, this option looks lost already.

  • Use the novel procedure of "indicative votes" to coalesce around a softer Brexit, like Common Market 2.0, with a view to getting a statement from EU leaders that such a softer Brexit is consistent with the Political Declaration on the future UK/EU relationship they've already signed. And also incorporate into UK law, via the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill, that a UK government of any persuasion is obliged to make a reality of that softer Brexit in the subsequent two to four years of talks.

  • Use the novel procedure of indicative votes to coalesce around a referendum.

  • Decide that a no-deal Brexit on 12 April is the best we'll realistically get. Go for that in a spirit of hope rather than anger. And after the initial economic shock, get back to negotiating a sensible long term commercial and security relationship with the EU.

Here are two other important considerations. The second option, of moving to some form of soft, single-market based Brexit, could be expedited to get us out of the EU by 22 May - that is without the requirement for the UK to participate in the EU parliamentary elections.

However the fourth option, a referendum, would require us to field candidates in that election - which would be weird in the extreme, as a country which has very publicly said it wants to leave the EU.

EU leaders doubt Theresa May's ability to get MPs on-side. Credit: PA

Be in no doubt that every EU 27 leader dreads UK participation in those elections; they fear our involvement will corrupt the process, and taint the institution. The notion of Nigel Farage leading a new bloc of EurExiters does not warm their cockles.

And if proof you need, the decision to choose 12 April as the new Brexit cliff-edge date was made precisely because that is the last possible moment when, under EU rules, it is possible to be an EU member and not field candidates in the election. If we're members on 13 April, Farage - and anyone else who fancies - can put themselves up for election to the EU parliament.

To be clear, though, the EU's leaders can't and won't say no if we insist on fighting them. But they would hate it and would say yes with the heaviest of hearts.

What matters more than anything therefore is that in the three weeks of breathing space EU leaders have given us - JUST THREE WEEKS - UK party leaders, ministers, senior politicians, MPs have to do what they have singularly failed to in the more than 1000 days since Brexit, which is to co-operate as far as they can to find an outcome that is in the national interest, take proper responsibility for it, and lay to one side narrow party considerations.

If they don't, won't or can't, we will be leaving without a deal on 12 April. And truthfully, based on what you might call behavioural evidence on the current generation of MPs, I am retaining my prediction that we will be leaving without a deal, probably in 21 days.