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Analysis

EU despair at UK meltdown prevents Brexit breakthrough

by John Wyles | 09.11.2017

Senior officials in the EU are not paid to despair over any issue. Their task is to hammer out possible solutions and present them to their political bosses. Despair, nonetheless, lies heavy in the air over Brussels and its institutions.

Despair over the glacial progress of the UK’s withdrawal talks. Despair over the infirmity bordering on paralysis that has marooned Theresa May and her colleagues in the lower foothills of the Article 50 negotiations. And despair over the sheer impossibility of guessing about who will be in nominal control of Brexit in the UK over the next few months.

The inescapable weakness of May’s government, and its evident disarray on how to avoid the looming cliff edge, means that no real progress can be expected from the round of negotiations beginning today.  

“Increasingly, our problem is that we do not know who we are negotiating with. Is it the hard minimalist eurosceptic Tories who are now talking up the prospect of no deal and encouraging complacent acceptance of it? Or is it those  anxious to make progress on transition arrangements and the future trading relationship?” asks one of Brussels’ most experienced practitioners in European affairs.

This uncertainty alone is enough to keep the EU firmly anchored to its current positions on the divorce issues. Money is paramount and there is incredulity in Brussels that the UK has been so reticent about negotiating the criteria for determining Britain’s final Brexit bill.  

Unless the prime minister indicates that she might be ready to move eventually towards a €60 billion settlement in the next two weeks or so, December’s European Council will not adopt guidelines for negotiations on trade and transition arrangements.

With the next Council summit scheduled for the end of March, this could put the negotiations under impossible time pressure next year. They would then end in tears and no deal.

EU officials are noting the decline – albeit quite unexciting – in the British public’s support for Brexit. For the moment, they see little chance that Brexit will be abandoned, even if an implosion of the Tory government triggers another election. They would not expect the likely winners, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, to campaign in favour of ditching Brexit.  Would Labour even take a stand on staying in the single market and customs union?

Perhaps Michel Barnier learned something substantive yesterday from meeting Hilary Benn and Keir Starmer in Brussels, but they are likely to have learned more from the encounter than he did.

So many questions. If a change of government comes after Britain’s formal exit from the EU on March 29 2019, could the status quo ante be restored and with it the UK’s return to full membership?

“We 27 can decide whatever we want and a UK climbdown would be an important lesson to separatist movements around Europe which are ignoring the challenge of exiting the EU,” says one senior official. “It would also set a powerful example for eurosceptic populist parties strengthened by recent national elections.”

EU institutions may be bemused and bewildered by Britain’s political turmoil and the absence of effective leadership, but for many the inescapable question is whether an end to Brexit would do much to heal the deep divisions in Britain over its relations with the European mainland.  

There is no prospect of a giant leap towards deeper integration, but President Macron and Chancellor Merkel are expected to push for incremental changes in common defence and security policies and the management of the euro. Against this background, keeping a strongly eurosceptic and obstructive Britain in the fold would be a mixed blessing.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

3 Responses to “EU despair at UK meltdown prevents Brexit breakthrough”

  • “The deep divisions in Britain ( really? should this not read England? ) over its relations with the European mainland ” . These divisions are for the most part based on ignorance of the European movement in the general public, ignorance cultivated and nurtured by the Europhobic press, and a small fraction of the Tory Party, presently in ascendency in the Cabinet, whose DNA includes an antipathy for Europe. The overall driver for the Brexit movement is however those persons who fear a loss of autonomy in their financial dealings from potential regulation into financial matters by the EU ( which would be in all our interests ).
    It is true that after 40 years of denigration of the European movement it would be difficult to immediately change the perception of the EU in the minds of the general public but do not let us forget that in spite of everything, the remain vote was still 48% of the voters. So why not try to roll back the prejudice and speak up for Europe?

  • Staying in the Netherlands right now and discussing Brexit a lot one thing gets clear: if the UK would decide to ditch Brexit and come back the impression this caper made here in The Netherlands and certainly in nearby Germany will most definitely not restore the cordial feelings toward the UK in the way they used to exist. Brexit has smashed that to pieces.

  • There are only two responses to no deal or any deal with content, let parliament and the elecorate have a referendum or a general election. As WRMogg jabbered on about sovereign parliament and NFarage about the common aman – let the people decide on just what they think of the deal.