“Please look away until we’re behaving sensibly again!” That was the request made to the German public by British journalist Peter Bild speaking here in Deutschlandfunk yesterday. So when can we look again? That really is a matter of interpretation now. Yesterday evening it became clear: the British parliament, as expected, resoundingly rejected the Brexit deal.
I have just discussed this with Germany’s Foreign Minister, Social Democrat Heiko Maas, and I started by asking him whether he understands what parliament did last night.
Well, yes, I understand what they did. They rejected something we had spent months negotiating, a deal the British Government had already agreed to. But what didn’t become clear yesterday is what the MPs in London actually want. All that became clear is what they don’t want, and that is not enough.
So what now?
The ball is now in the UK’s court. The Prime Minister has said that she has to make a proposal by Monday. She will also have to make a proposal to parliament about how things are to proceed. We will wait for that first. We are prepared for this situation, too. In recent weeks we have adopted three major legislative packages for a hard Brexit. To that extent, this is all very regrettable. The ball is now in the UK’s court. But we are ready, even if it does turn out to be a hard Brexit.
Why is it so clear that the ball is in the UK’s court? Given yesterday’s events, isn’t it time for a compromise on the European side as well?
We have a compromise: the agreement negotiated by the European Commission and the British Government. Both sides already compromised there. If there had been something more to offer to UK, that would have been done sometime in the last few weeks, to help get a majority in parliament to back the deal. And so in the first instance we will have to see how the vote of no confidence in London goes today. We need to see what there is that MPs can actually agree on so that we know what actually needs to be discussed. Because there’s no doubt that there will have to be more talks.
What should they be about?
On that, too, Britain needs to say what is important to it. The agreement did actually regulate all issues to ensure a reasonable transition for the time when the UK is no longer part of the European Union. When it comes down to it, it is bound to be about the backstop, the question of whether the UK’s departure from the European Union will lead to a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, something which would cause tremendous domestic problems there. Because the removal of checkpoints at that border was one of the key aspects of the Good Friday Agreement which ended the Troubles. And absolutely no-one wants to bring them back.
However, the backstop is the main stumbling block at the moment. That was the point, as far as we can see, that most MPs had trouble with, because they felt it would chain them for even longer to the EU they wanted to leave. If the point of the backstop is to avoid a hard border in Ireland, and if we end up with a disorderly Brexit because of the backstop, then what has been gained?
Well, I believe everyone involved wants to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and that there will be political unrest there, like we have seen in the past and like some individuals have already indicated. Ultimately, we need some sort of regulation. If Ireland remains a member state of the European Union and the UK leaves, that would basically mean there would be a customs border between the two countries, Ireland and Northern Ireland, and that is something we absolutely want to avoid, and that’s why we need the backstop.
What are your hopes for this evening, with the vote of no confidence?
I hope it does not make the situation even more difficult, and that the MPs keep in mind that the UK needs to remain able to act in the next few days. In the final analysis, this, too, is a decision that needs to be taken in London. But we are hoping that reason will prevail.
What do you mean by “even more difficult”? After all, the vote of no confidence has been called by the British Labour Party, with whom you might be said to be in closest contact. Do you understand why they are not advocating much for Europe?
Well. Firstly, it is about a political response to Mrs May’s truly overwhelming defeat in parliament, the biggest defeat any British prime minister has suffered. And that is what will happen in the political confrontation in London. To that extent, this vote of no confidence is not all that surprising. Let’s leave aside the question of what the chances are, because I believe, in the end, not even the Conservative Party has an interest in holding new elections at this juncture. But that is something else we will have to see.
If Mrs May were toppled, however, it would make the situation extremely more complicated. Because the negotiations now, the talks that will have to be held with the Commission in Brussels, need a functioning government, and that will depend on the vote of no confidence.
Do you share the view of many Europeans that the Labour Party in the UK is focused above all on power plays?
That such a decision – and I don’t believe it would be any different in other parliaments in Europe – has political consequences, and that the opposition is drawing its own conclusions, is a process currently underway there, and indeed it is the right of the opposition in every parliament. However, we must look at the situation we are concerned with here. We need a solution and we need it quickly! The UK’s future relationship with the European Union really is an extraordinarily important question. We do not have much time left, and the time for games is over.
Notwithstanding all the uncertainties, we have to look at the possible follow-up scenarios. You say there is little time left. One scenario would be to postpone everything again, to extend the 29 March deadline. Would that be an option?
Again, that is something the British need to decide themselves. Yesterday, at least, there was no indication of it. If an application to that effect is submitted, we will consider it constructively. It will not be entirely easy, because we have the European elections in May and that in turn raises many questions: for how long can you postpone something like this, and what course does it mean you’re taking? Extending the deadline only makes sense if London wants to take a particular course, the goal being to reach an agreement on Brexit. And that, to date, has not been the majority view in the UK parliament.
I'm trying to understand more precisely here: “consider it constructively” – that would mean that extending the deadline is not entirely inconceivable?
Naturally we have to consider the situation we are facing now. There is no majority for what was negotiated between the Commission and the UK Government. The parliament in London now has to say what course it wants to take, or what points are particularly important. Over the past few weeks and months, and Commission has always made it very clear, and the EU member states have largely agreed, what is important to the European Union in relation to the UK’s withdrawal. Of course this is something we will have to talk about.
We, too, want a solution, and if the deadline is a problem, that will be a matter for discussion. But I would not want to jump the gun and say at this stage that what is important now is to extend the deadline. What is important is that parliament in London decides what it wants, that the desired course is set out in the next three days, and that agreement is reached in London, so that we actually know what the problem is and how we are going to resolve this impasse.
Interview conducted by Sandra Schulz