Riccardo AlcaroResearch Coordinator and head of the Global Actors Programme at the Italian Institute of International Affairs

In Salzburg, EU leaders have once more dismissed the idea that the UK can be a member of the common market for goods (though not for services), but still limit the free movement of people, and benefit from frictionless trade with the rest of the EU—while staying out of the Custom Union. These are fundamental questions. Yet they need not be solved now, as the exact contents of the future EU-UK relationship will be defined during the two-year transition period that will follow Brexit.

The urgent issue is the land border between Ireland and the UK. May has rejected the EU’s proposal for an Irish backstop; namely, a binding commitment by the UK that Brexit will leave the border untouched, as that may involve the need for checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Yet the Irish backstop would only kick in if no deal on the new relationship is reached—agreeing to the backstop would still give the UK the possibility of finding a solution more to its liking, while allowing for an orderly Brexit.

Because accepting the Irish backstop remains a far less risky and costly option for the UK, May is more likely to eventually swallow that bitter pill than risk a stormy Brexit.

Philip BoyesDirector for Germany and Central Eastern Europe at Project Associates

Theresa May left the EU summit in Salzburg with her Chequers Brexit plan in tatters. In practice, not much has changed. EU leaders said in public what officials have been saying for weeks: May’s plan to remain in the single market for goods but not services is a nonstarter. And there won’t be an agreement on the Irish border until the British government concedes the special status of Northern Ireland. 

Now there’s a gradual realization in European capitals that a no-deal Brexit is an actual possibility. Brussels calculated that May would do everything to avoid such an outcome. Since Salzburg, this looks like a risky bet. A deal is possible but only if EU leaders accept that Brexit, in one form or another, is going to go ahead—a reversal or new referendum is not going to happen.

After two years of crippling uncertainty, London must provide legally binding guarantees for EU nationals. These must cover all outcomes, including a no-deal scenario. Brexit was sold to the British public as a way to regain control over migration. The ultimate paradox is that the pound’s weakness and uncertainty about Brexit is driving many Poles to go home.

Tony ConnellyEurope editor at RTÉ

A deal is possible, but after Salzburg it is a lot more difficult. Theresa May needs a lot of political space to maneuver her party toward a withdrawal agreement and accompanying political declaration on the future relationship. But that political space is contracting fast.

The critical obstacle is the Irish border. In recent weeks the EU has tried to pressurize London by rendering the so-called backstop so inoffensive that, given a choice between accepting it and a chaotic “no-deal” Brexit, May would surely choose the former.

But May has gone in the opposite direction, characterizing the backstop as a direct assault on UK sovereignty. London will soon produce new proposals, but it looks likely they will insist the backstop is UK-wide, so as to avoid customs checks along the Irish Sea.

That is problematic for the EU as the customs relationship should be part of the future free trade agreement. The other problem is that the Chequers paper posited the UK in a closer long-term relationship, meaning the backstop would be easier to sell (that is, it might never be needed.) But the upcoming Tory Party Conference may well kill Chequers off altogether.

Federico FabbriniProfessor of EU Law at Dublin City University (DCU) and Director of the DCU Brexit Institute

A Brexit deal is difficult but not impossible—and it must be achieved. A disorderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU would be disastrous, particularly for the UK. The British ship is not ready to leave Europe’s docks and sail free on the world’s oceans. A transition period is necessary for the UK to recreate the legal, administrative, and political capacities of an independent state after 43 years of EU membership.

The condition for a transition period is to approve the draft withdrawal agreement, which includes a backstop to avoid the creation of a hard border on the island of Ireland. Yet the backstop is nothing more than an insurance policy that may never be used if the EU and the UK reach a future partnership that preserves close economic ties between them—as both parties have pledged they will do.

The Brexit referendum reflected the wish of the UK electorate to leave the EU as a political project, but there is no reason why the UK should forfeit the common market that it helped so much to create. By accepting the withdrawal agreement the UK will phase into a transition period where it will enjoy a status akin to Norway, and this may serve in the long-term as a possible template for its future relations with the EU.

Brigid LaffanDirector of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute

Yes, a Brexit deal is possible—and I would say even probable given the consequences of a no deal for both the UK and EU. A Brexit deal has two components: the withdrawal agreement and a political declaration on the future relationship. There is considerable contingency surrounding both elements. Agreement has been reached on many aspects of the withdrawal deal, but the outstanding issue is the backstop on the Irish border. The UK is unwilling to sign up to the formula proposed by the EU in an effort to move the negotiations along. Michel Barnier has attempted to dedramatize the issue by forensically looking at all required checks and scoping where they might be conducted with the least disruption. But the May government has failed to engage seriously with these efforts and put its own backstop proposal on the table. When meeting Leo Varadkar last week in Salzburg, Prime Minister May informed the Irish Taoiseach of her doubts that the backstop could be agreed in October. This contributed to the adverse reaction to the UK at the summit. London must now begin the serious negotiations required to reach a withdrawal agreement. No backstop, no deal. 

Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

Yes, a Brexit deal is possible—provided we make the distinction between it and the withdrawal agreement, which is the legal formulation to quit the EU Treaty at the end of March 2019. The EU and UK agreed last December that the withdrawal agreement would cover 1) moneys owed by Britain; 2) protection for EU citizens in UK and Brits in Europe; and 3) that no frontier would return to Northern Ireland.

The first two issues are agreed. Mrs. May is struggling with the Europhobic Ulster protestant political sect called the Democratic Unionist Party, which gives her a 10-seat majority in the House of Commons. But formulae on Ireland will be found in the spirit of EU constructive vacuity to allow the withdrawal agreement to go through.

The wider deal of a future UK-EU relationship will take a “Brexeternity” of negotiations starting on April 1, 2019. Norway, Canada, or a man-on-the-moon future are possible.

Opportunistic MPs—Tories who hate Europe, and Labour who hate Mrs May and want yet another election—may seek to repudiate the withdrawal agreement. But that opens the risk of trade and flights stopping, capital controls, and a complete breakdown of the UK economy. It is unlikely that there is a majority for this version of Brexit apocalypse. So a withdrawal agreement is possible and an end deal sometime in next decade. But as in July-August 1914, accidents can happen.

Pol MorillasDirector of the  Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB)

A deal is within reach, but it will be a last-minute one. In Salzburg, EU leaders played with a Brexit reversal that would require the UK to backtrack after either a second referendum or a snap election. Theresa May’s leadership remains at risk, but many in Brussels reckon that she is a more reliable negotiator than her alternatives in the Conservative Party. Jeremy Corbyn, while trying to capitalize on the Brexit conundrum, is hesitant about a second referendum and presses for a general election which, if won, would unlikely lead to “Breturn.”


Close to the deadline, pressure on the UK and EU-27 economies will mount. The UK will attempt to reinforce bilateral conversations, which have so far failed due to the unity of the EU-27 and the speculative consequences of Brexit. As 2018 comes to a close and the European Parliament elections approach, Brussels will be wary of a no-deal Brexit as another sign of failure in a crisis-ridden EU.

A last-minute deal will resemble those reached during the heights of the euro and refugee crises. An extraordinary summit will close at dawn, and the small print will define the substance of the withdrawal agreement. A political declaration on the future relationship will be wide and vague enough to be sold in capitals. Germany and the Netherlands, accustomed to wins during the euro crisis and now more exposed to the harmful consequences of a no-deal Brexit, will also make clear who calls the shots in the EU.

Mary C. MurphyJean Monnet Chair in European Integration and lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics at the University College Cork

In a word, yes! However, such is the extent of animosity and discord which now exists between the UK and the EU that getting to the point where an agreement can be reached will be no mean feat. Any deal must satisfy the positions and priorities of two increasingly oppositional negotiating teams. To achieve a deal will demand extraordinary political leadership, high-level negotiating skills, a minimally accommodating political environment (particularly in the UK), and some amount of political courage and creativity.

It is difficult to see how the stars might align to produce such an outcome, but what must be clear to senior negotiators on both sides (despite denials) is that the alternative—a no-deal Brexit—is not just irresponsible but politically negligent. For the UK, it will mean an economic downturn, political instability, and constitutional volatility.

The biggest loser of all, however, will be Northern Ireland, where economic shock will be coupled with the political blow of a hard border—which, in turn, has the potential to lead to irresistible pressures for constitutional change (and in the worst-case scenario, a return to low-level paramilitary hostilities.)

A Brexit deal is possible because the alternative is not just risky, it’s plain reckless.

Jacek Saryusz-WolskiMember of the European Parliament

Since the confrontational Salzburg summit, two extreme results of Brexit negotiations seem most probable: first, a hard, no-deal separation; second, another referendum, hopefully reversing the UK decision to leave the EU.

The latter is clearly the best, as Brexit is fundamentally and geopolitically harmful for both the UK and Europe, especially for Central-Eastern Europe.

Consequently, the EU institutions, instead of keeping silent as in the past, should encourage reversing Brexit. If that’s not possible, they should contain losses and provide for the softest, most friendly, and least punitive Brexit deal. The European Union is indeed a voluntary, not a compulsory, organization. The divorce deal should, if unfortunately unavoidable, keep the UK as close to the EU as possible and secure the interests of EU citizens, including the 1 million Poles living in the UK.

A no-deal separation would create a long-lasting, deeply-rooted clash, making it even more difficult for the UK to reenter the EU.

Meanwhile, Brexit negotiations are becoming hostage to political games ahead of the European Parliament elections. A hard Brexit would suit left-liberal parties in the EU, like Macron’s progressives, as an admonition against conservatives or branded populists. The confrontational tone at the Salzburg summit by European Council President Donald Tusk puts at stake the unity of the European Union, stirring up political and geographical divisions instead of building bridges.

Daniela SchwarzerDirector of the German Council on Foreign Relations

A Brexit deal by November is possible. It may look unlikely after the recent Salzburg summit, which revealed the perception gaps between the UK and continental Europe brutally. EU leaders showed that the Chequers plan was no more than a negotiating position. But for Theresa May, the paper outlined the minimum of what she needed to get Westminster’s approval of the Brexit deal. Both sides expected flexibility from each other; no one was willing and able to move.

Although spirits are extremely low at the moment and the political situation in the UK is confused ahead of the Tory Party Conference, the November summit will probably bring some kind of deal. The costs of a no-deal Brexit would simply be tremendously high. It will be a profoundly fudged deal, though, which includes the roughly 80 percent of negotiation items settled already, but leaves the most contentious issues, such as the solution for Northern Ireland, for the transition period. Within those two years, heads will have cooled so solutions can be found—if the UK Parliament indeed ratifies the fudged deal the prime minister brings home in November. This if, however, is a very big one.

Paul TaylorContributing editor at POLITICO

Of course a Brexit deal is still possible because it is overwhelmingly in the interest both of the UK and of the EU to have an orderly separation and avoid the chaos and recrimination of a no-deal crash out. The dramatization of recent days may have been necessary to enable Theresa May to survive the Conservative Party Conference, defiantly wrapped in the Union Jack.

The real concessions in any negotiation are made only in the final phase, and we’re not quite there yet. Britain’s attempt to go behind the back of Michel Barnier and appeal to EU leaders for a special trade deal was always a nonstarter. Barnier is their agent, not some hardline French villain on steroids.

How to square the circle on the Irish border question remains a riddle, but ultimately the UK is likely to have to accept remaining in a Customs Union with the EU in all but name, perhaps with a review clause that allows magic technology to take over if and when it comes online. London has already signaled it may accept the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice, at least indirectly via an arbitration panel, to supervise the withdrawal treaty.

A political declaration on close future economic, political, and security relations can be drafted without locking in either the Norway or Canada models for trade ties. That will be the object of years of future negotiation in what is likely to be a much-extended transition period beyond the end of 2020.  

Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe

The Salzburg meeting definitely revealed a profound misunderstanding both from Britain, which still struggles to comprehend what the single market concept is about, and from the rest of the EU members, who remain convinced they can call Theresa May’s bluff. In Salzburg both sides thrived on intransigence for domestic political purposes. The meeting did not bring any deal closer, but it was not intended to—even if the British prime minister may have been under the false illusion that her Chequers plan would win the day.

Yet to broker a compromise at this stage of the negotiations does not require much of an effort from either side, and they both know it. The only remaining hurdle for settling the withdrawal agreement and allowing for a smooth Brexit rests with fixing the backstop solution that would eventually apply to the Northern Ireland border—if no other solution is found before the transition period ends in December 2020. To fall over the cliff edge for not delivering on a problem that only comes to fruition in two years’ time sounds like an insult to EU negotiators, who have in the past found all sorts of ways to fudge much more complex issues. In fact, a deal is there for all to see with a little political will.

Both sides know that the real difficulties lie ahead with the discussions on the future trade relations between post-EU Britain and its 27 former partners, especially with the EU’s political situation set to look more confused and unsettled after next year’s European Parliament elections. With hindsight, the Salzburg showdown may well pale in comparison to the looming post-Brexit confrontation.