Brussels is watching the UK’s political crisis with ever greater incredulity. “I urge the UK to clarify its intentions as soon as possible,” EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker declared after the House of Commons rejected Theresa May’s Brexit deal by a record margin. “Time is almost up.”
In an echo of Juncker’s call for the UK to resolve its stance, the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned: “It is now for the UK government to clarify how it wishes to proceed … The risk of no deal has never been higher.” Disillusion in Brussels is palpable. What to do when the other party sets fire to months of carefully-negotiated work?
No-deal talks have been accelerated by the Commission. “We are taking this very seriously now”, the Commission’s spokesperson, Margaritis Schinas, told reporters in Brussels. In December, the Commission published its no deal contingency plan to protect citizens’ rights as well as the aviation, transport, and financial sectors. In addition to its own contingency plans, the Commission is liaising with the EU27 to centralise no deal planning, Schinas added. “We’re not taking any chances.”
The EU still hopes the UK will belatedly come to its senses. “It’s time for the national interest to overtake narrow party politics and cross-party politics redefines the red lines imposed by hardliners in the Conservative Party”, Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit representative, said, describing Brexit as the result of “a catfight in the Conservative Party that got out of hand.” EU Council president Donald Tusk was even blunter: “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?” he asked.
Only four months remain until the European elections in May, and the renewed Brexit crisis could now lead to an extension of Article 50 (beyond the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March). While the European Parliament “understands the UK could need more time”, it would be “unthinkable” to prolong Article 50 beyond the European elections, Verhofstadt has said. “What we will not let happen, deal or no deal, is that the mess in British politics is again imported into European politics,” he added. At the Commission, officials stress that an extension request has yet to be sent by the UK. “Should there be a UK request, it would have to set out the reasons for such an extension”, Schinas specified.
Brexit is far from the EU’s top priority this year – with the Eurozone crisis still unresolved – and its patience is being tested by repeated British U-turns. All profess good faith, but their frustration at the UK’s inability to choose is starting to show.
“It’s up to the Prime Minister to tell us how things are going to move forward”, declared German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while her Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned: “Game time is over.” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz opposed renegotiating the Brexit withdrawal agreement in all circumstances, while Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called Brexit a “disgrace” in which everyone loses.
“We won’t stop defending European interests just to resolve Britain’s domestic problems,” French president Emmanuel Macron warned as his country triggered its no-deal preparations, with €50m to protect infrastructure and businesses. “May figures that she can still obtain from Brussels what Brussels cannot and will not give”, wrote El Pais, while a Le Monde editorial concluded: “As Margaret Thatcher liked to say: ‘Enough is enough.’ The time has come to make a choice.”
Europeans are disillusioned and exasperated by Brexit, as are the UK’s EU citizens. Since “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, a no-deal Brexit would be particularly bleak for them: their rights, potentially guaranteed by May’s settled status scheme, could be wiped out overnight. Verhofstadt has called for their rights and those of British EU residents to be “safeguarded”; European parliament president Antonio Tajani has demanded “assurances with regards to their future.”
“Deal or no deal, we need our rights,” Maike Bohn of the citizens’ rights group the3million told me. May’s deal wasn’t perfect but it guaranteed basic working and living rights for EU nationals, she said. Now that agreement is off the table and the UK is stranded at a cliff-edge, citizens’ rights must urgently be “salvaged from the wreck” and guaranteed, Bohn said.
In her Salzburg speech last September, May assured EU citizens that their rights would be protected. But weeks later, she described them as “queue-jumpers”. In October, when the3million asked the British government for citizens’ rights to be ring-fenced, they were met with a polite refusal.
“They told us that they took note of our concerns, but they felt it was not the time to talk about ring-fencing because they wanted to give the main deal a chance,” Bohn recalled. And the government has not sent positive signals since. In December, a Brexit department notice announced that, in the event of no-deal, the government would continue its settlement scheme but might abandon other rights detailed in the withdrawal agreement.
If the planned Immigration Bill is introduced without EU citizens’ rights provisions, it will further weaken their position. “It would wipe our legal status”, Bohn said. In the meantime, EU citizens in the UK will continue to live in limbo. “I can’t take this uncertainty anymore, I feel so anxious and upset all the time,” Eleanor Coden, an Italian who has lived Britain for 17 years, told me. “It’s been 1,000 days of feeling like you might be made redundant, that you have to reapply for your job and you may or may not get your job back”, Maike Bohn explained. “It’s a horrible, horrible feeling.”