Brexit: EU wary of divisions over UK delay

Donald Tusk Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption Can European Council President Donald Tusk unify all of the EU's leaders?

The EU has almost given up understanding what's going on in UK politics.

This weekend, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte compared UK Prime Minister Theresa May to the Monty Python knight whose limbs get cut off in a duel, but insists to his opponent that the fight was a draw.

Elsewhere in the EU, there is less attempted humour about the situation, especially with the prospect of a lengthy delay to Brexit on the cards.

"The whole point of Article 50 [which sets out the legal process for leaving the EU] is to go," a diplomatic contact from one of the UK's closest trading partners told me.

"The UK triggered Article 50 two years ago, but it prevaricates, debates with itself and hovers around on the EU stage."

With so much uncertainty surrounding when, whether and even how many times Theresa May will invite MPs to vote on her Brexit deal before 29 March, there are whispers (though little appetite) in some EU circles that leaders may need to hold an emergency EU summit on 28 March.

"It's a permanent drama for us," a diplomat from a northern European country added. "A sideshow that sucks out the air of everything else."

With UK politics mired in a fog of confusion, the only thing the EU can control this week is choreography at the EU leaders' summit, starting on Thursday.

Donald Tusk, European Council President and the representative of all 27 EU countries in Brussels, is visiting a number of capitals to try to co-ordinate a single EU response if or when Mrs May asks for an extension to Article 50.

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Image caption Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (R) has compared Theresa May to the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

On Monday, he's in Berlin and Paris - capitals of the EU superpowers, Germany and France. But when it comes to an extension, any of the EU's 27 leaders has a veto. The decision must be unanimous.

This conjures up horror visions in EU leaders' minds over being held to ransom by one of their ranks keen to use this leverage over Brexit to win a concession from Brussels over a separate issue.

Remember the EU leaders' meeting in 2015 where they were finalising their EU reform offer to then UK Prime Minister David Cameron?

That was hijacked in turn by the Italian and the Greek prime ministers. Both demanded an audience with France and Germany to push for more EU solidarity - the former over the migration crisis and the latter over the Greek debt crisis - before they would sign up to the EU position on David Cameron's reform request.

So, what delights might await the EU on Thursday? More drum-banging from Italy perhaps, demanding more flexibility in its budget or more leeway in EU migration regulations?

Even when it comes to the issue actually on the table - the case for delaying Brexit - Europe's leaders are divided. They're beginning to think through the cost to the EU and to themselves.

Of course, if Theresa May managed to squeeze the negotiated Brexit deal through parliament before 29 March, a short extension to allow the UK to ratify the agreement would be a no-brainer for the EU, but the idea of a longer extension is unappealing to many.

It would prolong not only the pervasive Brexit drama, but the corrosive uncertainty affecting European business, citizens' rights and foreign investment.

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Image caption The UK Parliament has twice rejected Theresa May's negotiated withdrawal agreement

Key players in the EU, like France, also worry about the presence of a resentful UK-in-turmoil at the EU decision-making table - having a say in the make-up of the next EU budget, and choosing the next presidents of the European Commission and European Council.

By law, an extension to the UK's leaving process would also mean an extension to the UK's EU membership. EU countries could not legally bar the UK from EU business.

And what about the elections for the European Parliament, fast approaching in late May? There are internal disagreements in the EU about by which exact date and whether the UK would have to field new MEPs in the elections.

But EU leaders are united in regarding the prospect of the UK taking part in those elections as a cross between a nightmare and a farce.

"You don't want me back, do you?" shouted Nigel Farage, MEP and former UKIP leader at fellow members of the European Parliament last week.

The answer: No, they really, really don't.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nigel Farage is a member of the European parliament

Nor do the mainstream leaders of EU countries - like France, where opposition populist nationalism enjoys strong support - want the Brexit issue dominating the elections.

I see EU diplomats close to the Brexit process, edging ever closer to almost preferring the inevitable costs of a no-deal Brexit (which they believe their countries are increasingly prepared for) to opening the door to "prolonging the Brexit agony", as one high-level EU source put it to me.

Ultimately though, these diplomats describe the final decision on an extension as "Chefsache" - a matter for their bosses, the EU leaders, to decide on Thursday.

And irritated, frustrated and fatigued as they are with the Brexit process, it is likely those leaders will end up granting an extension to try to avoid a no-deal Brexit and the political blame game that would inevitably follow.

The cherished hope amongst most EU leaders right now is that the threat of a long extension, which they know is unappealing to most MPs too, will encourage lawmakers in Westminster to hold their nose and vote for Theresa May's deal so that the EU can move on and focus on its many other challenges - including new negotiations with the UK to sort out a post-Brexit trade deal.

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