More than 850 days after the referendum, the EU’s patience in the Brexit negotiations is running out. Last week’s European Council summit in Brussels brought no progress to the deadlock in Brexit talks and saw an increasingly isolated Theresa May facing the unanimous voice of the EU27 leaders. There is little time left, the EU made clear, and it must be spent by the UK on making choices and sticking to them – an outcome the European side does not believe can still happen.
After the disaster of the Salzburg September summit, in which May resorted to demanding respect after being humiliated, October’s European Council was a quieter affair. Nevertheless, it did serve to remind the UK of the state of play: the EU is tired of the British U-turns and will not bear responsibility for a possible no-deal nightmare scenario.
The order of the day was to call for the UK to face its own responsibilities. Good faith was present on both sides – Antonio Tajani, the president of the European parliament, welcomed the “optimistic” tone of May’s address. But he then went on to regret its lack of “new, substantial content”. European leaders followed suit, calling time on the UK’s indecision: “The EU has already shown efficacy and flexibility”, Emmanuel Macron said at the summit. “There is no additional political compromise to be made on the European side now.” And he added, for clarity: “The key element is a British political compromise.”
The problem is that expecting the UK, where Westminster politics are turning more Lord of the Flies-y by the day, to find a “British compromise” is a utopian dream.
The EU is well aware of this fact, but at this point, it has no other option left. Brussels insiders stress the EU’s willingness to negotiate and work hard on a solution, but parlay only works if you’re negotiating with one opposite party – not several contradicting ones. Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė summed up the frustration many feel. “We do not know what they want, they do not know themselves what they really want,” she said upon her arrival in Brussels. “That’s the problem. If you have a negotiator who has no strong mandate, it’s very difficult to negotiate.”
The EU will work as hard as possible to make a deal happen. Michel Barnier’s claim that the “deal is 90 per cent done” is no bluff: Brussels believes a deal is credible and within reach in the next months. It simply doesn’t trust the UK to follow through with it. “I hope that if there is a deal, it will be backed by the British parliament,” Belgian PM Charles Michel told journalists. “We are worried, because we can see it’s difficult.” Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel agreed: “Even if a deal is reached here, it’s not guaranteed it passes in London”, he said, adding with a touch of irony: “We can only hope.”
Even Michel Barnier has admitted that he cannot foresee a deal for sure, “because the UK political situation is very complex”. “I do not know what decisions Theresa May will take. I hope for a deal, I am working for it,” he told the French radio station France Inter.
The widespread view in Brussels is that a deal will happen, then collapse when it crosses the Channel for parliament approval. At which point things will turn ugly, but it won’t be the EU’s fault.
The vicious internal battles of the British political class, at such a crucial time for the UK, has Europeans puzzled. Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit negotiator, lamented in French newspaper Libération: “In any other country, if such a serious decision had been taken, there would have been political unity to preserve the country’s best interests. [In the UK], no one gives a damn.” After months of deadlock and no sign from the Brits of political maturity, Verhofstadt’s weariness is understable. “They will come back in twenty years, when a new political generation, which we can see emerging in anti-Brexit demonstrations, will have seized power. In the meantime, since they’re decided to go, they can go.”
How do you restore peace in a band of quarrelling, noisy, out-of-control children ? If all falls short, you could always wait for them to get hungry. The EU will be hoping it won’t have to resort to that.