With many members of the European Union fully resigned to Britain’s departure from the bloc, two questions took center stage Tuesday: how — and when — to get the U.K. politely out the door.
EU leaders will confront British Prime Minister Theresa May for the second time in three weeks on her government’s delayed plans at an emergency Brexit summit on Wednesday, and such gatherings aren’t getting any friendlier.
The bloc’s leaders have tried to help May over the past two years of negotiations, even after she missed the planned Brexit date of departure on March 29 because of a parliamentary revolt.
So EU countries, especially France, have become increasingly exasperated with the political division and uncertainty in Britain about a way forward.
On a charm offensive with key leaders, May first flew to Berlin pm Tuesday to plead for good terms with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then set off for Paris to meet with President Emmanuel Macron, seen as her counterpart with the toughest demands.
“France is really trying to play bad cop here,” said Larissa Brunner, an analyst at the European Policy Center, referring to French insistence that another extension to her deadline must come with strings attached and assurances from London.
May has already obtained a delay until Friday, and she will be asking for another postponement that lasts until June 30 at the special EU summit, all because of the political chaos Brexit has wrought in London.
France is now pushing hardest to get the EU to take some decisive action.
Germany thinks likewise. “There isn’t an endless readiness to keep talking about delays so long as there is no substantial progress on the British side,” said Michael Roth, Germany’s deputy foreign minister.
All eyes are now turned toward Macron, who has it in his power to force Britain to choose between a no-deal Brexit on Friday and cancelling its departure altogether. A drastic cliff-edge exit would have huge costs to businesses and trade across the English Channel and be very cumbersome to travelers as it would hit airports, ports, tariff rules and standard regulations overnight.
EU rules say that any extension to the Brexit deadline needs unanimity among the 27 other member states.
Britain’s Byzantine parliamentary disarray that has left Brexit in a state of a flux has added to continental annoyance.
“We are in a very, very frustrating situation here,” Roth said as he arrived Tuesday at an EU meeting in Luxembourg. But, he added, a disorderly Brexit would be “the worst of all options on the table.”
Every British initiative to get a deal has foundered so far. Now, May’s Conservative government and the main opposition Labor Party have been trying to find a compromise Brexit deal before EU leaders decide Wednesday whether to grant a second extension to the U.K.’s departure.
Labor favors a softer Brexit than the government has proposed, and wants to retain a close economic relationship with the bloc.
For two years, March 29 was the date etched in law to get Brexit through. The new red line has become the May 23-26 European elections and the July 2 start of the new five-year EU legislative session.
European Council President Donald Tusk has offered up the possibility of a long-term delay, a one-year “flextension.”
But some EU leaders worry that could have drawbacks — especially after British Brexit backers suggested they would try to make life difficult for the EU.
Conservative lawmaker Mark Francois said that if the U.K. remained in the bloc, “then in return we will become a Trojan horse within the EU, which will utterly derail all your attempts to pursue a more federal project.”