EU Watches U.K.’s ‘Absurd Drama’ But Won’t Help May Stay in Job

(Bloomberg) -- Follow @Brexit on Twitter, join our Facebook group and sign up to our Brexit Bulletin.

The European Union won’t step in to try to save Theresa May’s job and will wait to see how the challenge to her leadership plays out before taking decisions about Brexit’s next steps.

EU governments are watching developments anxiously ahead of Wednesday evening’s vote on the prime minister, knowing that it could destroy two years of tough negotiations and lead to the U.K. crashing out of the bloc without a deal, diplomats said. Ambassadors from the EU’s remaining 27 countries started meeting in Brussels at 1 p.m. to discuss the events, with one describing a nervous atmosphere that gets tenser and tenser.

No decision about delaying the U.K.’s exit beyond the scheduled March 29 date -- nor of publishing formal or legal assurances to the prime minister over the Irish backstop issue -- can be made until January, diplomats said. An emergency summit might need to be called in the new year to do that, one said.

The EU has long thought that keeping May in her post was the best chance of getting the Brexit deal approved and preventing a disorderly exit by Britain. But officials in Brussels and national capitals believe they have gone as far as they can and are wary of interfering in domestic politics at such a sensitive time. One senior diplomat said the EU considered U.K. politics an “absurd drama” and patience was wearing thin.

May has staked her job on being able to get the Brexit deal endorsed by the U.K. Parliament. With huge opposition to it among lawmakers, the bloc says it’s open to providing some additional language but won’t unpick the draft treaty.

“We do not have any intention of changing the exit agreement,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the country’s lower house of parliament in Berlin on Wednesday. “That is the general position of the 27 member states and in that sense it cannot be expected that we will emerge from the debates with any changes.”

If May gets through the challenge to her leadership on Wednesday, she is due to join the other EU leaders for a summit in Brussels starting Thursday afternoon. She is expected to address them on Brexit before leaving the room so that they can discuss the situation without her.

EU leaders plan only a limited response this week to help May sell the agreement to Parliament. They will issue a statement following their discussion which might provide her with a glimmer of reassurance but European diplomats acknowledge privately that any steps they take are unlikely to be enough to win over U.K. lawmakers. They say that contingency planning for no-deal is now well under way.

“As time is running out, we will also discuss the state of preparations for a no-deal scenario,” European Council President Donald Tusk said in a letter to leaders ahead of the summit.

While the EU is open to providing fresh assurances over the backstop agreement that aims to prevent a hard Irish border, they won’t reopen negotiations on the substance of the deal. And they won’t make the backstop temporary, as May is asking.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.