As Brexit talks start Monday, Britain’s back is hard against a wall. And nobody, not even in Brussels, wanted it that way.
Elections in the U.K. were supposed to give Prime Minister Theresa May a stronger hand against the EU and naysayers back home. Instead, her negotiating team will hobble into the talks with May in peril, still working to finalize a power-sharing agreement to allow her to form a minority government.
The EU’s stance on major Brexit issues has been ironclad for months, backed by the 27 nations in a disciplined display of unity. Second-guessing about May’s approach has intensified since her election setback, so much so that there have been calls for the EU to avert potential disaster by laying out clear paths for the U.K.’s exit.
The view in Brussels, however, is there is no way to help May short of making clear that Britain is welcome to change its mind — a point reiterated by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans, among others.
While no one realistically expects such a total reversal, there is unease over the lack of clarity on the U.K.’s goals.
“Clearly the Brits are not ready yet and it’s a pity,” a senior Commission official said.
“Everybody has sympathy for [May] now because she put herself in an impossible situation,” the official said. “How we can help her? Where she is now, nobody can help her. What she said to the backbenchers, in a way made sense, ‘I put you in this mess. I will take you out of this mess.’ But who else can do anything for her? It’s just hell.”
“And all the questions,” the official added, “Withdrawal? No withdrawal? Now? Later? It’s for them to consider. What can Brussels say?”
The EU has published and transmitted to the U.K. its position papers on the two issues Brussels insists take precedence: citizens’ rights and the financial settlement. May’s aides said she wanted to make a “big, generous” offer on citizens’ rights, but so far the U.K. has not published any similar documents laying out its positions.
Talk of a “big, generous” offer has quieted since May’s Tories lost their majority in the election. May is preoccupied with reorganizing her government and rebutting assertions that the election result was a rebuke of her handling of Brexit. She has been further distracted by the tragic Grenfell apartment tower fire.
In yet another sign of how May is struggling to find her footing, an EU diplomat said the British prime minister had sought to put a full discussion of Brexit on the agenda of the EU summit to be held Thursday and Friday in Brussels.
She was rebuffed by European Council President Donald Tusk. Instead, May will be allowed to make a statement on Brexit — with no discussion.
Over the weekend, the U.K.’s disarray only seemed to get worse as May faced renewed calls from business leaders to talk a softer approach on Brexit. The financier and activist George Soros warned that Brexit was already an economic threat to British living standards and urged May to stay in the EU single market, at least temporarily.
“The fact is that Brexit is a lose-lose proposition, harmful both to Britain and the European Union,” Soros wrote for the Mail on Sunday, a right-leaning U.K. tabloid. “It cannot be undone, but people can change their minds.”
So far, there is no sign the election results have softened the U.K.’s approach to Brexit. On Friday, London slapped down suggestions in Brussels that May had agreed to the EU’s preferred “sequenced” approach — putting divorce terms ahead of any discussion of a future relationship.
The EU has sought to portray such sequences as effectively non-negotiable because of EU treaty requirements over how accords, like free-trade deals, must be reached with third countries. London still insists the withdrawal and the future relationship can be worked out in tandem.
“Our view is that withdrawal agreement and terms of the future relationship must be agreed alongside each other,” the U.K.’s Department for Exiting the European Union said in a sharply-worded statement. “We believe that the withdrawal process cannot be concluded without the future relationship also being taken into account.”
In prepared remarks to be delivered at the talks, the U.K.’s negotiator, David Davis, made a small conciliatory gesture, saying, “We want both sides to emerge strong and prosperous.”
But mostly Davis echoed the U.K.’s emphasis on the future relationship that has irked EU leaders, given that they have never seen a need to change the existing relationship. “While there is a long road ahead, our destination is clear — a deep and special partnership between the U.K. and the EU. A deal like no other in history,” read the text of Davis’ prepared comments.
It was as if nothing had changed since late March, when May sent her letter formally triggering Article 50 and the negotiating process, and officials in London and Brussels clashed over the same point.
Perhaps more sobering is that, in many ways, nothing has changed since a year ago when the U.K. first voted to leave. Despite endless analysis of virtually every facet of the U.K.’s relationship with the EU, both inside and outside government, the tough Brexit questions are no easier to answer.
How to avoid a Brexit deal re-establishing a border between Ireland and the U.K.? Well, you could always reunify Ireland. Want to keep the U.K. in the single market but out of the EU? There’s always the Norway model that requires upholding the EU’s fundamental freedoms and paying into its budget, but comes with no voting rights.
Do U.K. financial obligations total €60 billion or €100 billion — or are they virtually impossible to calculate because some liabilities are impossible to predict? Are the EU-preferred terms — “obligation” and “liability” and “previous commitments” — an accurate way to describe what’s owed, or is the phrase “exit fee” preferred by many Brexiteers a legitimate characterization? Everyone for now is stumped.
As May struggles to complete her power-sharing agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland and charts a path forward in talks with Brussels, the conundrums that have bedeviled Brexit from the start remain, well, bedeviling.
May’s most quoted line in the run-up to negotiations has been: “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it.” In Brussels, the view was summed up by Tusk, who said: “There is nothing to win in this process, and I am talking about both sides. In essence, this is about damage control.”
At the Prague European Summit last week, a panel of experts wrestled with unresolved Brexit issues that pose obstacles to completing a withdrawal agreement by March 29, 2019 — the two-year deadline set forth in the EU treaties.
“’Brexit means Brexit’ is a bit like telling a toddler ‘bedtime means bedtime,'” said panelist Tim Oliver, research director of Brexit Analytics and a fellow at LSE IDEAS, a think tank. “Yes, there will be a bedtime,” Oliver continued, “but the how, when, why…”
EU officials have long sought to portray Brexit as a minor irritation that would not distract them from their broader policy agenda. Now the defeat of populist candidates in the Netherlands and France have given a huge boost to efforts to strengthen European integration, particularly in the areas of security and defense.
Negotiating posture aside, leaders in Brussels and across the Continent seem genuinely more excited about their own future and have no shortage of other matters to focus on.
In Brussels, officials brushed off questions about May’s precarious position, saying they recognized she might not be in office to sign any withdrawal agreement. The EU, of course, has an equal interest in an orderly withdrawal rather than seeing the U.K. go “over the cliff” and leave the bloc without legal answers to questions raised by Brexit.
At the same time, EU officials are adamant London must find its own way out of the chaos. “Nobody can help them,” one EU official said. “They need to help themselves. We would not even do this to our worst enemy, what is happening there.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.
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