Dutch fudge or Walloon macaroon? EU weighs gift for May

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Dutch fudge is off the summit table as EU lawyers look closer to home in Belgium for a model of what leaders can offer Prime Minister Theresa May in the way of reassurances to help her sell a Brexit deal at home in Britain.

FILE PHOTO: British Prime Minister Theresa May is welcomed by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte ahead of a meeting in the Hague, the Netherlands, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw/File Photo

In Brussels on Thursday, May tried to persuade the rest of the European Union to gift-wrap a treaty on British withdrawal that she agreed with them just last month, but has been unable to get through parliament before Christmas.

Leaders refused to reopen the package, offering only further reassurance that fears an Irish “backstop” clause could trap Britain forever in EU rules were overblown.

Some indicate they might go further in the new year, if not as far as the legally binding expiry date May wants. Others are wary and excised a draft statement offering more words to come.

Yet such a further declaration would extend a long pedigree of such special textual favors, involving Danes, the Dutch, the British themselves and a quick fix to fend off a veto threat in 2016 from the French-speaking Belgian region of Wallonia.

Complicating calculations was the question of whether this week’s gift to May should be followed up by more next month, so that their intended generosity is still fresh in the minds of British lawmakers when they come to vote on Brexit in the new year.

May visited Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Tuesday. After a referendum in the Netherlands two years ago seemed set to undo an EU pact with Ukraine, Rutte got fellow leaders to issue a summit “decision” that reassured his country that Ukraine was not about to join the EU.

However, EU officials say the “Dutch fudge” model would need longer preparation than May has left before Brexit in March and carries more legal weight than Ireland and others would accept.

That applies too to the “Danish solution”, referring to a summit in Edinburgh in 1992 which gave Denmark a side-deal to avoid its government vetoing the Maastricht Treaty on deep European integration, despite Danes having voted No in a referendum.

HOMAGE TO WALLONIA

A favored solution now, say EU diplomats, could be that used to appease Belgium’s Walloons when their left-wing parliament threatened to veto a free trade accord with Canada.

Belgian trade policy is devolved to its French-, Dutch- and German-speaking regions, so this was a major threat. The fix was a 12-page “Joint Interpretative Instrument”, by which the Union set out how the EU-Canada treaty would work.

Lawyers believed this did not go beyond the deal already signed in Ottawa or obfuscate possible future legal arguments.

That would fit the bill now for an EU determined not to unwrap the indefinite guarantee to Dublin that Britain would stay in a customs union until a better way is found to avoid frontier posts that could disrupt the peace in Northern Ireland.

A former EU legal chief said leaders “never” approved “any protocol, codicil or even declaration saying something which would not be legally in conformity with” a treaty. Britain must not count on that happening now, Jean-Claude Piris tweeted on Friday.

Thursday’s page of summit “conclusions” spelling out a hope never to use the backstop or, if so, only briefly, was for some EU officials an absolute end to the efforts to help May.

But some diplomats see it as just an early Christmas gift to bolster May at home, with a more substantial package of promises – though still purely political rather than legally-binding – to come next month, before she puts her deal to parliament. May might have to come up with some better arguments first, however.

“We can’t give too much now, as we would be left empty-handed for stage two in January,” one senior EU diplomat told Reuters.

The British have form on this. Leaders remember a summit deal for May’s predecessor David Cameron in early 2016. Based on the Danish model, it included an opt-out from EU migration rules and was meant to help him persuade Britons to stay in the EU.

But in campaigning for the June Brexit referendum, he barely mentioned it and then lost – throwing the EU into crisis.

“The experience of Mr Cameron showed these things have a tendency to evaporate very quickly,” a second senior diplomat said of the timing of any special assurances for May.

“There is a risk of a similar situation.”

Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by David Stamp and Andrew Roche

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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