Exit from Brexit welcome, but unlikely - German foreign minister

03 February 2019 - 17:08 By Reuters and AFP
Britain's prime minister Theresa May standing at the dispatch box and speaking during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on January 30 2019.
Britain's prime minister Theresa May standing at the dispatch box and speaking during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on January 30 2019.
Image: Mark Duffy/AFP/UK Parliament

While German foreign minister Heiko Maas would like to see an "exit from Brexit" - Britain abandoning its plan to leave the European Union - he said in a newspaper interview on Sunday that he saw such an outcome as extremely unlikely.

Maas repeated the EU's position that the withdrawal agreement thrashed out between Brussels and London, which was rejected by Britain's parliament last month, could not be renegotiated.

He added that Britain's only path to avoiding a so-called "hard Brexit", in which London exited automatically on March 29 with no transitional arrangements in place to ensure the continued flow of goods, medicines and transport links, was to accept the existing deal.

With less than two months to go until it automatically leaves the bloc, British prime minister Theresa May's government has yet to agree an exit agreement or a position on its desired future relationship with the soon-to-be 27-member EU.

But Maas rejected British calls for further concessions to be offered to make the deal, negotiated over two years, more palatable to its critics in London.

"The agreement we negotiated with Britain is already a compromise - especially regarding the arrangements for Northern Ireland," he said. "There must not be a hard border to the Republic of Ireland... We cannot risk the Northern Ireland conflict flaring up again."

The lack of progress has led some to call on London to exercise its right to revoke the announcement of its intention to leave that it made two years ago, which would leave it as a full-fledged member of the bloc.

Asked if he could envisage this happening, Maas was sceptical. "That's what I'd like the most," he said. "But we should have no illusions about this. The likelihood of an exit from Brexit is extraordinarily low."

May said on Sunday she would be "armed with a fresh mandate and new ideas" when she meets European Union negotiators over her Brexit deal.

She wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that she would be "battling for Britain and Northern Ireland" in her efforts to get rid of the agreement's unpopular backstop provision. "If we stand together and speak with one voice, I believe we can find the right way forward," she said.

The backstop is intended to ensure there is no return to a hard border with Ireland, but Brexit supporters fear it will keep Britain tied to the EU's customs rules.

MPs voted last week to send May back to Brussels to renegotiate the clause, suggesting her deal would then be able to pass after it was roundly rejected in parliament last month.

"I am now confident there is a route that can secure a majority in the House of Commons for leaving the EU with a deal," she wrote.

"When I return to Brussels I will be battling for Britain and Northern Ireland, I will be armed with a fresh mandate, new ideas and a renewed determination to agree a pragmatic solution".

The EU insists that the deal "remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal," but with the clock running down until the March 29 exit date the risks of a no-deal Brexit for both Britain and the bloc are coming into sharp focus.

May said opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn "also believes the potential indefinite nature of the backstop is an issue", and that the EU has "already accepted the principle of 'alternative arrangements' superseding the backstop should it ever be required."

The backstop would kick in if Britain and the EU have not agreed a trade deal on their future relationship after a time-limited transition period of up to two years.

The prime minister rejected accusations that plans to reopen the backstop talks risked upsetting the Irish peace process.

"Nor do I have time for those who believe the verdict passed by the British people in 2016 should be overturned before it is even implemented," she added, referring to the rump of MPs calling for a second referendum.

"I'm determined to deliver Brexit, and determined to deliver on time - on March 29," she wrote.

May has promised MPs that she will bring any revised deal back to be voted on by MPs on February 13.