Has Theresa May just turned the tables on the EU?
It certainly seems so. How could she possibly pull that off? Your power at the negotiation table is, as you know, determined by the strength of your alternatives. Your best alternative determines the minimum that you have to accept before walking away. Hence we can increase our power by improving our alternative. Or by worsening the alternative of the other side. Theresa May apparently found a way to do both.
As I have argued in earlier posts, she has not been in a strong negotiation position recently. The House of Commons had voted down her deal. A large majority of MPs thought that their alternative was better- namely, forcing her to try to get a better deal before the end of March. The European Union, on the other hand, has rejected re-negotiating the deal. It figures that watering down the backstop would be worse for the remaining 27 than a no-deal, however disastrous. In other words: Theresa May has so far not been able to bring the two sides to an agreement because both think that their alternative is better. And that alternative is a no-deal.
But this seems to be changing. Last night ITV´s Angus Walker released a wonderful scoop:
He reported to have overheard Olly Robbins, the UK´s chief Brexit negotiator, talking about the government´s amended strategy. At a hotel bar in Brussels! Robbins allegedly said that he expected MPs to be presented with a final choice between backing May’s deal and a long extension of article 50. Theresa May would present that choice at the very last minute, in “the week beginning end of March.”
At that time it will be clear for MPs that the deal on the table is in fact the best possible deal. While not perfect it would be preferable to their constituents over delaying Brextit.
Presenting the EU with the same alternative would also strengthen May´s hand. While article 50 can only be “extended” with the consent of the EU, the UK is perfectly entitled to unilaterally “cancel” its withdrawal. And prolonging the waste of resources, damning uncertainty, and damaging conflict of the Brexit negotiations may be the one thing that is more threatening to the 27 than making concessions. Theresa May could present the EU with an ultimatum (say on the summit on 21 March), to make the needed concessions for her to bring an improved deal to the House of Commons (say on 25 March).
To the House of Commons she would say: "You send me to re-negotiate, and I have. We all may prefer a different deal, but this is it. Brexit is in four days. We have to deliver on it. Vote for my deal. But if you cannot: You already told me that you cannot accept a no-deal. Neither can I. Or the Europeans. So if you really cannot vote for my deal, we have got to start all over. Re-group, take our time, and do it when we are ready. If you do not want my deal, you have to give me the mandate to revoke the withdrawal. And you have to do it right now."
3 days days prior to that she would tell the Europeans: "This is what I will tell the MPs. You get to decide if they make the right choice. Please help them."
Days before Brexit (29 March), both sides would be faced with essentially just one alternative, one that they perhaps hate even more than no-deal.
Readers of this blog will know that personally I would much prefer a different approach. I continue to believe that it would in the mutual interest of the EU and the UK to erase certain red lines and build certain golden bridges. Yet this may, or may not, happen. Short of it, Theresea May may offer Parliament and the EU the one alternative that could make them agree on a deal.
Or perhaps she will do something completely different. As you know, we have to be careful with our predictions- especially when they are about the future.