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12 December 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:45pm

“Astonishment, alienation, and bewilderment”: the view from Brussels and Berlin

Could the risk of a no-deal disaster apply pressure on EU leaders? And how do European politicians feel about the prospect of a new British prime minister?

By Noah Gordon

Theresa May has been making a whirlwind tour of Europe in an attempt to salvage her Brexit deal – or at least, delay a vote in Parliament until the point that Britain’s MPs, with a possible no-deal exit just weeks away, decide that her withdrawal agreement really is the best on offer.

Given that part of the Tory party has today triggered a vote of no-confidence against its own prime minister, this plan doesn’t appear to be going too well. In fact, if May falls, her latest European tour may disappear into the annals of Brexit arcana, like the Chequers plan or Dominic Raab’s brief tenure as Brexit secretary.

Still, how the Brexit chaos looks from Europe is important. If the risk of a no-deal disaster is meant to apply pressure to British MPs, could it also work on EU leaders? And how do European politicians feel about the prospect of a new British prime minister?

Decision-makers in Brussels were quick to emphasise yesterday that they will not reopen the withdrawal agreement to help May win a vote. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said there is “no room whatsoever for renegotiation”. This echoed similarly tough comments by European Council president Donald Tusk – though he added that the EU would discuss how to “facilitate UK ratification”, likely by issuing legally non-binding assurances that the EU, too, would really prefer to avoid resorting to the backstop to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland. Such minor add-ons wouldn’t do much to help May in Westminster.

Europe’s firm stance does not reflect an ignorance of the dramatic consequences of no-deal for the EU economy. For Brussels, this deal is better than no-deal. Even as she warned that the withdrawal agreement was the only one on offer, French Europe minister Natalie Loiseau said that she is “very worried” because a no-deal exit is “not unlikely”. Her German counterpart Michael Roth seemed disappointed and confused, saying the “only positive thing is that the EU-27 remain united”. A few isolated voices in Berlin even appeared to want the EU to go the extra mile to stop the disorder: the head of a major German trade association worried about the “Brexit earthquake heading for both sides of the channel”, while the director of an economics research institute in Munich called for additional negotiations to save the withdrawal agreement.

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One might, then, ask why the last 48 hours haven’t moved the needle in Brussels. The answer is because the EU has taken the risk of no-deal into account throughout the negotiation process. This huge, multi-level, multilateral organisation has long been balancing the interests of German carmakers, French generals and bankers, and Irish border officials – to take just a few examples – and doing what it can, within the framework of its own red lines, to prevent no deal.

Indeed, according to reporting in the Financial Times, Angela Merkel pressed the Spanish in November to tone down their demands regarding Gibraltar so that the UK government could accept the withdrawal agreement. That’s why the German chancellor could walk out of Tuesday’s meeting with May and confidently tell her party there would be no renegotiations now.

The imbalance of power that has characterised every previous stage of talks holds true now: the ball is in the UK’s court, and the UK would suffer more from the failure of talks than would its bigger neighbour.

The local media in Berlin gives a good sense of the mood here. Germans following the Brexit drama on their major newspapers’ live blogs were treated to videos of Andy Serkis playing a Theresa May obsessed with her “precious” deal and the prime minister herself struggling to unlock her car door as Angela Merkel and the cameras stood waiting – not to dire warnings that they would be poorer if their representatives didn’t make concessions to the UK. The most popular podcast on German public radio spent 10 minutes speaking to a Munich-based Brit about his right to residence in Germany before moving on to Emmanuel Macron’s apology to the French people.

Admittedly, the possible removal of Theresa May from power is a somewhat new element. European politicians will be non-committal until the vote is over to avoid any scandal. But they also know that installing a new prime minister would change neither the arithmetic in Westminster nor the EU’s interests. It’s even possible that replacing May leads not to no deal but to a short extension of Article 50, as justice secretary David Gauke said today. In that case, the next British prime minister would have a few extra months to square the Brexit circle.

Jana Puglierin, head of the Centre for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations, summed up the German perspective: “Most Germans look at the situation in Britain and now the leadership contest with astonishment, alienation, and bewilderment. It is still unclear to us how the UK, which we have always seen as a beacon of rationalism and pragmatism, has fallen into total chaos. No new leader could possibly change Brexit realities and negotiate a better for the UK without adjusting the UK’s red lines.”

The vote this evening is decisive for Theresa May and the Conservative party. But it will not be decisive for the EU’s approach to Brexit, and it will not make the EU more willing to make concessions – or go back on the backstop.

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