What the EU Wants to Hear from the U.K. Now

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The reaction of European politicians to the U.K. Parliament’s spectacular rejection of Theresa May’s divorce deal looks, on the surface, to be passive-aggressive.

First, there’s astonishment at the magnitude of May’s defeat; then there’s a refusal to renegotiate the agreement; and finally an exasperated cry of “Please, please, please tell us finally what you want to achieve,” as Manfred Weber, the leader of the European Parliament’s biggest faction, put it.

Make no mistake, though: The EU is continuing to negotiate, and these reactions are part of that process. Though EU leaders like European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas have urged the U.K. to clarify its desires (as they have repeatedly throughout the Brexit talks), they only want to hear specific things from Britain.

If one listens closely, a list emerges. At the top is a request for Britain to delay its end-March departure from the EU. German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, perhaps the closest ally and confidant of Chancellor Angela Merkel in the government, told BBC radio on Wednesday that the EU should “allow for additional time in order to achieve a clear position by the British parliament and people.” He said he would view such a request as “reasonable.” Given Germany’s weight in the European Council, which will decide on any extension of the Article 50 timeline, one can take it more or less for granted that the U.K. can have more time.

The two things the EU would like the U.K. to do with that time are equally clear.

One is expressed in European Council President Donald Tusk’s tweet: “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?” That, of course, is a reference to withdrawing the Article 50 letter and canceling Brexit altogether, just as 147 members of the European Parliament called on the U.K. to do in an open letter earlier this week. The path to such a decision lies through a second referendum.

The other option which the EU would be prepared to discuss is the so-called Norway model, where the U.K. would remain in the European Economic Area or a full, permanent customs union. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told the European Parliament on Wednesday that should the U.K. “change its red lines in the future” and embrace “the ambition of going beyond a simple, though not negligible, trade agreement, then the EU will be immediately ready to go hand-in-hand with that development and give a favorable response.”

Given all these inputs, May’s government — if, as seems likely, it survives Wednesday’s confidence vote — won’t be shooting in the dark. It’s clear what the EU will entertain; it’s also clear that the EU won’t compromise on the backstop, the provision in May’s agreement designed to prevent the emergence of a hard border in Ireland.

At the European Parliament, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans quoted a saying wrongly attributed to C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia books: “We can’t go back and change the beginning, but we can start where we are and change the ending.” That’s an invitation to keep talking that goes well beyond simply asking the U.K. to tell the EU what it actually wants.

By now, it would be delusional to think either side doesn’t understand anything about the other. EU officials weren’t really surprised by how badly May lost — they had read plenty of analysis in the British media and, I’m sure, done their own vote counts. May is also hearing the signals coming from Brussels and Berlin. She knows what the EU will accept; the EU knows what May could try to do, now that her deal has fallen through. Both know the alternative is a no-deal Brexit; neither wants it.

The logical step, then, would be for May to ask for more time and test the Norway option. It might turn out to be acceptable to Conservative remainers and to the opposition Labour party. Barnier has promised to move quickly in this direction if the U.K. chooses to. If that fails, the next step would be to call a second referendum. And should that fail, too, there would be no other option but to prepare for a no-deal exit.

If May doesn’t ask for an extension, the EU will maintain its current position — “Tell us what you want and we’ll look at it” — until the final hours before Britain leaves. Last-minute solutions are the EU’s traditional mode of operation. During the Greek crisis, which threatened the euro zone with the potentially catastrophic loss of a member, acrimonious negotiations went on until the last possible moment. But given that, like Greece in 2015, the U.K. stands to lose much more by crashing out than the EU, it is unreasonable to expect European leaders to cave at the last moment on anything as important as the backstop.

The U.K. won’t gain anything by brinkmanship. All it can do is make the next logical moves, regardless of how the confidence vote goes.

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

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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