Demonstrators carry a sculpture in the likeness of of Theresa May, U.K. prime minister as they stand on Park Lane during the anti-Brexit People’s Vote rally in London, U.K. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

The EU Won't Shed a Tear Over May's Demise Amid the Brexit Mess

(Bloomberg) --

A year and a half ago, one of the European Union’s priorities in the Brexit negotiations was to help Theresa May stay in power.

At a summit in Brussels in October 2017, rather than picking over the finer points of the nascent deal itself, the 27 remaining European leaders spent the best part of an hour discussing the prime minister’s job.

The EU Won't Shed a Tear Over May's Demise Amid the Brexit Mess

Many were worried that she’d be pushed out and replaced by a hardline Brexiteer -- such as then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson -- who would make sealing an agreement more difficult. For months afterwards leaders made a point of sounding conciliatory, and the EU helped by advertising small progress in the talks with great fanfare.

Now, exhausted and frustrated by how the Brexit process has unraveled in the U.K., EU officials say in private they care much less about May’s demise. Conservative lawmakers forced her on Thursday to agree to set a timeline to step down.

Still, the prospect they have long dreaded -- that of Johnson as prime minister -- now looks like a realistic possibility. EU officials say they are horrified at the idea that they could soon be negotiating with Johnson, blamed by many in Brussels for causing Brexit in the first place.

He fueled euroskepticism in Britain in the 1990s with his sensationalist newspaper articles about Brussels bureaucracy, and his last-minute decision to back Leave in the 2016 referendum helped swing the result. EU leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron have openly accused the Leave campaign of lying.

Many working on Brexit in the EU think Johnson would attempt to reopen the U.K.-EU deal and demand concessions. They said that would be messy and bad tempered, extend the Brexit uncertainty even further, and lead to a worsening of relations.

Losing Faith

European policymakers look at the deadlock in the British Parliament -- split between politicians who think May’s deal isn’t a clean enough divorce and those who think the public should be given an opportunity to scrap Brexit altogether -- with bafflement and despair. Yet they think they are helpless to influence the situation.

The European Commission, which led the negotiations, says it is on a “Brexit break” and refuses to even answer questions about it.

EU officials expect May will fail to get the deal approved by Parliament next month and that a new prime minister will request another extension in October, when the current postponement expires. While it’s too early to say whether leaders will allow that, EU officials predict it’s more likely than not -- despite many governments’ reluctance.

May’s fellow leaders gradually lost faith in her throughout 2018 as the Brexit negotiations dragged on beyond the initial deadline. Relations deteriorated after November, when the deal with the EU was finally struck, as she failed to get parliamentary support for it.

Commenting on the British political horror show has become a pastime for many EU officials, even if they’ve given up trying to understand it.

Speaking at a debate in Brussels on Wednesday, European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans compared the U.K. to a fantasy TV series in which violent warlords try to seize power.

“The U.K. looks like ‘Game of Thrones’ on steroids,” he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.