Theresa May Drags Europe Into Brexit's Quicksand

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Wednesday’s Brexit summit was meant to be Emmanuel Macron’s chance to pound the table and say “Non!” to Theresa May over her latest request to delay Britain’s EU departure.

In the end, even the French president couldn’t drag the bloc out of the quicksand that’s swallowing Europe: A never-ending Brexit that keeps a divided, resentful U.K. at the heart of the EU. Nobody is willing to cut the rope and leave Britain to its own unhappy fate.

The 27 non-departing member states have been impressively united against the U.K.’s divide-and-conquer negotiating approach for most of the 1,000 days since the Brexit referendum, but cracks are starting to show. While the EU leaders laid what they believed was an elegant trap for May last month, saying she’d either need to come back this week with the U.K. parliament’s blessing for her Brexit deal or a concrete reason to justify the agony of another delay, she gave them neither. Yet with both sides unwilling to gamble on the economic damage of Britain crashing out without a deal, she got another extension anyway – to October. (She’d been hoping for June, to lessen the fury of her Brexiter colleagues, but by this point she’ll take what she can get.)

There were a few conditions attached. The U.K. had to promise not to obstruct the smooth functioning of the EU, which reserved the right to meet as 27 where appropriate. But try telling that to hardcore euroskeptics in May’s ruling Conservative Party if Britain takes part in next month’s European Parliament elections, or Boris Johnson if he replaces her as prime minister.

Brussels lawmaker Philippe Lamberts, who sits on the EU’s Brexit steering committee, said the delay also sought to guarantee the terms of the agreed Brexit deal if it comes back to the U.K. parliament. That’s in case May is succeeded by Johnson or similar, but again good luck trying to make that stick. There’s no getting away from the absurdity of this situation. The supposedly cast-iron Brexit deadline has been delayed twice in almost as many weeks. The desire to avoid a no-deal departure is outweighing all of the costs of keeping the U.K. attached, like a destructive teenager who wants to leave home but doesn’t have the wit to arrange it for themselves.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, didn’t get the one-year delay he was pushing for, but six months is still pretty long. He wrote before the summit that only a lengthy postponement – with strict conditions on Britain’s comportment as a member state, of course – would allow the U.K. time to rethink its strategy, while shielding the rest of the EU from constant Brexit showdowns. Macron was understandably less starry-eyed about the consequences of kicking the can down the road yet again, but he still accepted the October 31 compromise. (That the new Brexit date should fall on Halloween prompted all the expected jokes about being trapped in an endless nightmare).

Breathing space is all well and good, but this delay removes much of the pressure on the Brits to agree a Brexit deal among themselves. Why would Theresa May keep trying to negotiate a cross-party solution with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, a sworn enemy of her Conservative Party, if the deadline keeps being pushed back? And why would the Conservatives allow a second referendum or call a general election – two possible ways of breaking the impasse in Parliament – if it threatened their hold on power? The Europeans have done exactly what they said they didn’t want to do: Offer a long extension without any concrete idea of what the Brits are going to do with it.

In the meantime, the U.K. is being set up as the EU’s first zombie member state. As things stand, it will have to take part in the forthcoming European Parliament elections unless by some miracle the prime minister manages to get a deal agreed by her lawmakers. If a deal is agreed after those elections, the U.K. MEPs will be ushered out. If there’s another delay, Britain would also be entitled to European Commission representation. It’s a real mess.

Some European politicians don’t see the situation quite so bleakly. While there’s a fear that angry Brits will vote for hardline euroskeptics in the European elections in a fit of pique, adding to the parliament’s nationalist bloc, Corbyn’s Labour Party might also profit from a backlash against the Conservatives. That would strengthen the Socialist grouping of European lawmakers. And Wednesday’s snapshots of May and Angela Merkel laughing together show that there’s still affection for Britain from its traditional pro-market liberal allies in Europe. Even Macron, for all his warnings about perfidious Albion, must realize that Europe’s high-pressure Brexit strategy hasn’t worked any wonders.

If the extra time somehow leads the U.K. to ratify May’s thrice-rejected Brexit deal, hold a second referendum that breaks the political impasse, or call an election that creates a unified majority in parliament, it will all have been worth it. If not, October 31 will be yet another horror show.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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