With Britain still feverishly discussing its Brexit plans, the other 27 European Union states are preparing their joint stance for a top-level summit with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday.
Nearly three years since the shock referendum vote to leave the EU, Britain’s political chaos has forced May to ask the bloc for a second Brexit delay.
Britain was originally due to leave on March 29 but the current date is April 12. Any further postponement would need to be approved unanimously by the 27 nations staying on together after Brexit. And they feel increasingly fatigued.
Playing the bad cop, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Monday the bloc’s patience was wearing thin. On Tuesday, European Council President Donald Tusk took a softer tack, telling the EU: “Let us be patient.”
A balance between the EU’s growing exasperation and patience with Brexit will shape the strategic position the 27 adopt at the April 10 summit. Here are the pros and cons of the main options from the bloc’s point of view.
Unless something else is agreed, Britain will crash out from the bloc as soon as April 12.
The EU talks of growing risk of no-deal Brexit almost daily, partly because it is current legal reality but also to scare the factious UK parliament into accepting the divorce deal May sealed with the bloc but which British lawmakers have rejected three times.
France has led EU states in adopting a tough line toward Britain and calling for accepting no-deal to end the Brexit uncertainty as soon as possible.
But the EU appetite for the most-damaging break is low and exposed countries like Ireland and Belgium are not fully prepared to manage ensuing disruptions.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s strong opposition to no-deal Brexit and the bloc’s wariness of being assigned blame for any abrupt split means this is not the most likely scenario for next week.
Second, Short Brexit Delay
Between preparing for the worst-case scenario and plotting a long delay, the EU has been somewhat caught by surprise by May’s request for a second, unspecified but short lag. The bloc is waiting to see what comes out of May’s talks with the opposition Labour Party to break the parliamentary impasse over Brexit.
It says London must relay its plan for the summit on Monday or Tuesday morning at the latest to ensure enough time for coordination among the other 27 capitals before the Wednesday evening talks between leaders.
Several EU diplomats said they thought May 22 was as late as a short delay could possibly go, with that date clearly shaping up as the limit of the bloc’s tolerance. They fear anything beyond that would risk compromising the functioning of the EU.
Juncker said on Wednesday that London would not get another short delay to Brexit unless the UK parliament approves the stalled EU divorce agreement by April 12.
Kicking It Into The Long Grass
For Britain to be allowed to stay much longer, the EU 27 have set a firm condition that it must take part in elections to the European Parliament on May 23-26. They have given London until April 12 to state its intentions.
EU diplomats discussed in recent days possible postponements of Brexit until the end of 2019, for a year until next spring or even going as far as the end of 2020.
Their Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has been vocal about the high economic and political costs of keeping Britain in much longer, as the bloc elects its new parliament and replaces the executive European Commission. It will also be setting its next joint budget for 2021-27.
The bloc is considering adding a “sincere cooperation” condition to that option, a gentleman’s agreement to minimize any risk that Britain could stall the EU’s agenda and vital processes, or undermine its operations or the legitimacy of its key institutions.
EU diplomats said that could include Britain removing itself from discussions on the next budget or selecting the new European Commission.