Europe Is Just Glad May Didn't Shoot Herself in the Foot Again

(Bloomberg) -- European Union leaders now hold Theresa May in such low esteem that their private targets for her latest summit appearance were minimal: Please, just don’t mess it up again.

Going into the meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, EU diplomats said they were worried May had again allowed expectations to rise irrationally high, doing nothing to stamp on predictions she could return from Egypt with a way out of the Brexit deadlock. Diplomats heard echoes of the language British officials were using leading up to September’s summit in Salzburg, Austria, when May not only went home empty-handed, but humiliated in the process.

May avoided that fate. But she didn’t manage much more.

Europe Is Just Glad May Didn't Shoot Herself in the Foot Again

With the summit focused on EU-Arab relations, there was never going to be the “deal in the desert” that some U.K. newspapers had forecast. Brexit discussions were confined to a series of one-on-one sessions away from the main meeting room.

Banana Skins

Even then, the potential for an accident was high.

May’s track record at such gatherings is calamitous, even when she doesn’t end up publicly embarrassed, according to one EU diplomat who regularly attends. She irritates fellow leaders because she doesn’t engage with them and makes promises she can’t deliver, he said. The final straw was her request in December for more concessions on her Brexit deal after telling them she knew it was the best agreement she could get.

Her chats on the sidelines of the summit with some of her counterparts Sunday and Monday were functional and businesslike, a second official said. Nothing illuminating was reported from the discussions because May didn’t say anything illuminating, the official said.

Europe Is Just Glad May Didn't Shoot Herself in the Foot Again

The main topic of conversation was whether, and for how long, she might postpone the U.K.’s leaving date. May rejected that question Monday as not “addressing the issue,” though EU President Donald Tusk didn’t hesitate to engage with it and the EU is considering telling the U.K. it should delay Brexit for almost two years if May’s deal doesn’t pass.

“I believe, in the situation we are in, an extension would be a rational solution,” Tusk said at the end of the summit.

Apart from an awkward episode caught on videophone of May being taught how to play pool by the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during some down time Sunday night, this was largely a case of danger averted.

There was no Salzburg-style calamity, and May fights on to get her Brexit deal passed before the scheduled leaving date of March 29.

But emerging from the desert talks with her dignity intact does little to address the fundamental challenges facing May and her government.

The U.K. is “sleepwalking into a no-deal scenario,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said. “Wake up.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.