BRUSSELS — Confronted with the ever more chaotic and confusing debate in Britain over Brexit, frustrated European Union officials have decided to sit tight until British democracy can provide some kind of answer to what the country really wants.
It could be a long wait. While leaders of the various Brexit factions in Parliament have agreed to talk, they have given no indication that they are willing to budge from entrenched positions.
And as the debate drags on in Britain — possibly toward an ugly ending — doubts are beginning to creep in about the bloc’s negotiating stance.
When the negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union began, there was concern in Brussels that a unified Britain could exploit divisions in the bloc to gain an advantage in negotiations. When the opposite occurred, with the Europeans holding together and the British cracking into multiple antagonistic factions, there was a detectable note of self-congratulation.
But with Parliament’s overwhelming rejection of the deal worked out so painfully with Prime Minister Theresa May, and Brexit set to take effect in just 10 weeks, the smugness has been replaced with a growing recognition that it was perhaps a Pyrrhic victory, a kind of catastrophic success.
“Catastrophic success is accurate, in that the general meltdown of the British political system highlights to everyone what a bad idea it is to leave the European Union,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Relations. “That is success, but catastrophic because at this point there’s no obvious way out of this.”
A no-deal exit would be the worst possible outcome, not just for Britain but for Brussels, Ms. Tocci said, even though a set of smaller deals covering matters like aviation and customs have been prepared just in case. But, she added, even a British decision to support a withdrawal plan that kept stronger ties to the European Union or one to have a second referendum “could still have bad and even catastrophic consequences for the E.U., given the delays involved and the imminence of the European elections.”
Those elections for a new European Parliament, set to begin May 23, are considered a crucial test of populist and euroskeptic sentiment on the Continent. An extended Brexit debate and the subsequent uncertainty “would be spun in different national contexts, creating risks and unpredictability that most incumbent governments don’t want to raise,” Ms. Tocci said.
If Brexit is not completed by then, there would be serious institutional confusions. No one in Britain can imagine campaigning for a seat in the European Parliament, but the body would be illegal if Britain is still a member state but does not have legislators, said Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Center, an independent think tank in Brussels.
Losing Britain was already a blow to the momentum of the European project, and a no-deal Brexit would be a further blow. But it remains the default if the British Parliament cannot agree on an alternative and if Britain does not request an extension to Article 50, which mandates a British exit on March 29.
For now, the Europeans will wait to see what emerges from Westminster — to make concessions now is considered foolish, both because Mrs. May is considered to have lost control over the government and because March 29 still acts as a pressure-cooker deadline for Britain.
“Nobody wishes to end up with a complete breakdown, which would be bad for both sides, even if worse for the U.K.,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But the other E.U. states are reasonably confident Britain won’t do that, since there is no parliamentary majority for a no-deal.”
If it looks as if Britain might actually reverse itself with a second referendum, or there is a sudden general election, the other 27 member states would almost surely grant an extension to Article 50. But European leaders seem united in rejecting any renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, which they believe already goes a long way to meeting British demands.
Britain’s future relationship with the bloc can be negotiated in many different ways, European officials consistently say. But most of the likely options would require retaining the primary sticking point in Britain: the guarantee that no hard border will be created on the island of Ireland.
President Emmanuel Macron of France has been particularly tough on the issue, partly because France sees a larger role for itself once Britain leaves. But now that he is so unpopular at home and challenged by the anti-Europe “yellow vest” protesters, “the more macabre and gruesome the British situation is the better, given his domestic situation,” Mr. Leonard said.
Mr. Macron thinks the British will ask to extend Article 50, but France will not accept any dilution of the single market, said Christian Lequesne, a professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris. In regard to the European Parliament, France also wants to avoid “an ongoing negotiation with a new Parliament without Britons, while the British are not officially out of the E.U.,” he said, adding, “That’s just too complicated.”
Even Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has been eager to keep close ties with Britain, has said that “it is clear that there cannot be any renegotiations” of the current deal, although she is open in principle to an extension of Article 50.
From the perspective of the European Union, the whole exercise has been something of a nightmare, Mr. Zuleeg said. But once Britain voted to leave, Article 50 was the only legal mechanism. “The E.U. would say it made a number of concessions to the U.K. but preserved its principles, making the best deal possible given British red lines,” he said.
Of course, the bloc deals only with governments, not with parliaments or the public, and Brussels was eager to try to help Mrs. May get her deal through. “But if it now looks like that is not in her power, no matter what the E.U. puts on the table, the inclination is not to put anything more out there,” he said. “And some still feel that the closer the U.K. gets to a no-deal, the more likely it is that they will compromise.”
There is little regret among European officials about their role in the talks. As Mr. Leonard said, the European Union’s primary goal from the start has been to preserve the single market, get money from Britain, preserve the rights of European Union citizens, make sure that Ireland is protected, and make leaving look unattractive to other countries.
The member states held together, he said, adding: “Brussels never sold out Ireland, as much as the U.K. may have wished it to.”
Some analysts found fault with both sides.
“The negotiations have been in a certain way a failure, more diplomatically than politically,” said Luuk van Middelaar, a Dutch philosopher and former aide to the first president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. Being an institution of laws and regulations, Brussels paid too little attention to the strategic and geopolitical importance of Britain to Europe, he said, focusing on trade first, where Brussels held the cards, and security later.
The British, with their attitude of having their cake and eating it, paid too little attention to the “unavoidable trade-offs between taking back control and economic loss,” he said.
But Brussels also suffered from hubris. “We thought too soon that we rode a faultless track,” Mr. van Middelaar said. “There was pride about the unity shown.”
Brussels, he added, “paid too much attention to the logic of the divorce, and too little attention went to the bigger strategic dimension of Brexit and the geopolitical aspects, which are a loss — an amputation.”
Michel Barnier, the chief European negotiator, defended the withdrawal agreement as “the best possible compromise,” and said that Brussels should be patient with the workings of British democracy. At the same time, he urged faster efforts to prepare for a no-deal exit, as France did on Friday, ordering the implementation of its no-deal contingency plan.
Frans Timmermans, the optimistic first vice president of the European Commission, said that Brexit would damage everyone, and that “it is our collective responsibility to limit that harm as much as possible.”
He cited the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might get what you need.”
If only it were clearer to Brussels what Britain wanted, let alone needed.
Orignially published in NYT.