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Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker meet in Brussels
Image: Getty Images/T. Monasse

EU bands together as UK rejects Brexit deal

Alistair Walsh
March 13, 2019

The European Union presented a unified front after UK lawmakers snubbed concessions and voted down a Brexit deal. Bloc leaders said the UK must justify itself if it wants an extension.


Leaders of the European Union closed ranks on Wednesday, lamenting Britain's rejection of a Brexit deal while cautiously entertaining the idea of an extension.

Despite concessions providing a legal time limit on the Irish backstop, an issue that has long vexed British lawmakers, the UK Parliament rejected an exit deal from the EU.

EU reaction

Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said Brussels had nothing more to offer and must now brace for the possibility of a messy divorce. "The EU has done everything it can to help get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line," Barnier tweeted. "The impasse can only be solved in the #UK. Our 'no-deal' preparations are now more important than ever before."

European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs Pierre Moscovici said the spurned deal was the "last chance" for a Brexit deal and that EU authorities were relatively prepared in terms of customs arrangements in case of a no deal exit. "It is time now for the British to say what they want, now that they've said what they don't want," Moscovici told France 2 television.

Before the vote, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told Britain, "There will be no third chance." He said any extension would have to be endorsed by the 27 remaining EU nations and would have to end before EU elections in May.

Read more: UK MPs vote down Theresa May's Brexit deal by 391 to 242

German reaction

The German EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger said he expects Britain to postpone its withdrawal from the EU. "Then we will see what reasons are given for this, and we will examine them in good faith," Oettinger told the German Press Agency. Oettinger said he was optimistic that London and Brussels would strike a deal with the help of an extension of the deadline. "There is movement in every parliament, including the British House of Commons."

He said he had the impression more and more Britons are becoming aware of the "tremendous damage" Brexit would cause. "This could still cause some surprises in the British Parliament," he added.

Michael Roth, Germany's deputy minister for Europe, said Britain needs to tell the EU what it wants. "We are at the very limits of what's bearable," he told Deutschlandfunk radio. "We have already changed the exit agreement once to suit Britain ... We are open and prepared to talk but we aren't getting any clear views from Britain on what they want, only what they don't want."

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said an unregulated Brexit was more and more likely after the no vote. "This decision brings us ever closer to a no-deal scenario," he said, accusing the country of "gambling carelessly with the well-being of citizens and the economy". "Unfortunately, I can only say that at the moment Germany has prepared for all the worst cases as well as possible."

German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said he hoped UK lawmakers on Wednesday would decisively vote down a no-deal Brexit. "After divisive debates and votes, today can become a turning point," Altmaier tweeted. "Rejecting No-deal-Brexit by a large cross-party majority will unite millions in the UK & in Europe. Whatever you finally decide. Good luck dear friends!"

Concern is also growing among business leaders. "The continuing uncertainty alone is devastating for economic and trade relations," stressed Holger Bingmann, President of the Federation of German Wholesale, Foreign Trade and Services (BGA).  Less than three weeks until the possible withdrawal from the EU, fundamental questions regarding customs documents or product registrations were open. More and more companies are therefore no longer concluding long-term supply contracts. Importers have long been looking for alternative sources of supply to compensate for the possible loss of British suppliers. "This waiting game has no winners," Bingmann stressed.

French reaction

"France regrets today's vote," the presidential palace said in a statement. But now "under no circumstances" could one accept an extension of the negotiation period without an alternative, credible British strategy.

French Minister for European Affairs said on Twitter "The EU has given all possible assurances in addition to the withdrawal agreement. We have reached the end of the negotiations on withdrawal because we must protect the interests of Europeans. "

"The solution to the current impasse can only be found in London. On our side, we are ready for all scenarios, including that of a Brexit without agreement."

Opinion: Theresa May's grand Brexit plan fails spectacularly

Other EU nations

Dutch Prime Minister said in a series of posts on Twitter: "It is disappointing that the UK government has been unable to ensure a majority for the Withdrawal Agreement agreed by both parties in November, even after multiple additional assurances from the EU. A solution must come from London."

"Should the UK hand in a reasoned request for an extension, I expect a credible and convincing justification. The #EU27 will consider the request and decide by unanimity."

Prime Minister of Denmark Lars Lokke Rasmussen said on Twitter: "Despite clear EU-assurances on the backstop, we now face a chaotic NoDeal Brexit scenario. And time is almost up. We will intensify our NoDeal preparation."

Irish Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee said a no-deal Brexit would be a lose-lose scenario for everyone.  She said no-deal tariffs would be absolutely disastrous for Irish agriculture. The UK has unveiled plans to allow tariff-free imports on 87 percent of goods for 12 months in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said avoiding a no-deal Brexit would receive unanimous support from EU leaders. "I assume that among the [EU) heads of government there is the unanimous view that it makes sense to avoid a no-deal scenario."

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