The Scale of May’s Brexit Defeat Matters to the EU Now

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union is waiting to see the scale of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s expected parliamentary defeat on her Brexit deal before considering its response, officials said, with some predicting that she will have to delay Britain’s departure from the bloc.

Anything larger than a defeat of about 60 lawmakers when they vote next Tuesday would probably mean the agreement is close to death and the negotiations are in uncharted waters, several EU officials said. Less than that and the bloc may look at fresh ways of making the agreement more palatable to get it across the line.

The EU won’t offer anything more than minimal comfort before the vote -- postponed from last year -- for fear that lawmakers would bank it and ask for more concessions, officials said. This would appear to dash May’s hopes that she will get substantial “reassurances” from Brussels before Tuesday.

The Scale of May’s Brexit Defeat Matters to the EU Now

On Wednesday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the U.K. may need to request a postponement of Brexit day if deadlock in Westminster continues and the risk of the U.K. leaving on March 29 without a deal becomes more likely.

“At the moment, it’s all about doing everything to secure passage in the U.K. Parliament and the European Parliament,” Kurz told reporters in Berlin. “If that doesn’t happen, then we would need to consider this scenario, but now it’s too early.”

Opposition Labour Party Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer told Parliament on Wednesday that he thinks a postponement is inevitable.

The Scale of May’s Brexit Defeat Matters to the EU Now

British officials played down reports the government was exploring delaying Brexit day and suggested the EU was trying to bounce the U.K. into making a request. It could happen only if May asked for it and if the 27 remaining EU member states accepted it. EU diplomats say the bloc is likely to accept a short postponement of a few months but won’t approve a longer delay unless there was a concrete reason, such as an election or new referendum.

Some EU officials think that the U.K. will ask for an extension of the negotiating period immediately after next week’s vote. Others say it could come as late as the EU summit scheduled for March 21-22, as the prospect of a disorderly Brexit without a deal looms within days. Their hope would then be for enough opposition Labour lawmakers to back May’s deal.

May sidestepped a question about delaying Brexit on Wednesday in the House of Commons. The previous day, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said leaving the EU on March 29 was “the government’s policy.”

The EU may send a letter to May giving further reassurances over the deal before Tuesday’s vote but privately neither side believes this will swing it in the government’s favor. The EU’s letter is likely to restate what has already been agreed:

  • that the EU doesn’t want to trigger the so-called backstop that prevents a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic;
  • that, if activated, it can only be a temporary arrangement;
  • and that the EU aims to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the U.K. by 2021, but this would only be aspirational.

EU diplomats say the bloc isn’t making preparations to save May’s deal and that the focus of their work is split between the formal ratification process and contingency plans for no deal.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.