In the blink of an eye, the leaders of the 27 remaining EU countries on Saturday agreed to a negotiating path to, in their view, a quick divorce deal with the U.K.
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Now they’re eager for Theresa May to come out on the other end of a snap election in June ready to sign up to the same script. The widely expressed concern in Brussels and other EU capitals is that the British prime minister won’t be strong or willing enough to play ball with them.
Despite the unpromising lead-up to Saturday’s summit in Brussels, including an awkward dinner date last week between European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and May and grumbling about the U.K. blocking EU budget talks ahead of their elections, the EU27 held out clear prospects of compromise, even saying the settlement could eventually include London’s vision of a robust free trade deal.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, told leaders in Brussels that the first phase of talks, which the EU insists must focus on the terms of the “divorce,” could be completed as soon as this autumn. That would allow London and the EU to discuss future trade talks before the end of the year, paving the way for a tentative deal by 2018.
At the same time, EU leaders sounded anxious notes, speculating that the British prime minister still does not grasp how long and hard the path to a deal will be. Their fear: Even if her Conservatives win big in next month’s election, she will not be willing to moderate her negotiating positions.
“We have to know very precisely what Britain’s wishes are so that we can react and say what our answer is,” Merkel told reporters in Brussels on Saturday. “We’ll all have to wait to see how that vote turns out. But for all of us, it’s important how the British government then goes into the negotiations.”
Observing from across the Channel, May appeared to be braced for difficult talks ahead. “We’ve already seen some of the comments coming out of Brussels, which show at times these negotiations are going to be tough,” she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday morning.
However, London is likely to greet the autumn timeline as a major concession that raises the possibility of an early agreement in principle on the U.K. honoring its financial obligations to the block — what the British press often calls “the Brexit fee.”
In Brussels, some officials expressed hope, perhaps naïvely, that a strong electoral mandate for May after the June 8 election might even lead her to reconsider her previous declaration that the U.K. will leave the EU’s customs union.
Britain’s insistence on leaving the customs union, in addition to leaving the EU’s single market, would make it extremely difficult to maintain the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland called for in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended years of violence.
Even as EU officials wondered aloud if the U.K. would show greater flexibility, the bloc seemed to dig in its heels on some of its own negotiating points, such as its wish for strictly phased negotiations and detailed guarantees of citizens’ rights, which would include a role for the European Court of Justice in adjudicating future disputes with a U.K. outside the EU.
The U.K. objects to the idea of phased negotiations. In May’s letter triggering the formal Article 50 withdrawal process, she expressed Britain’s desire for “simultaneous” discussions of the withdrawal and a future relationship four separate times.
Merkel and other EU officials suggested that process is non-negotiable and cited EU provisions in the EU treaties specifically stating that a departing EU member must first legally exit the bloc before negotiating any new agreement.
“I sometimes have the impression that these phases — first, the ‘separation’ phase, and then the ‘future relations’ phase — maybe haven’t become clear enough to some in Britain,” Merkel said.
At the summit, the normally fractious EU countries reached agreement on the EU’s guidelines within minutes of leaders sitting down — “it won’t happen again,” joked Juncker. EU officials said it’s now up to Britain to agree to the guidelines so that the talks can begin. The main delay, EU officials and leaders said again and again on Saturday, was the U.K. election.
“If Mrs May comes to the June European Council and says ‘Phase 1, yeah, we agree on everything that’s in the guidelines, here we sign’ I think everybody will say ok,” a senior EU official said.
“Nobody in this room wants to delay,” the official said. “Everybody was very, very happy to go as fast as possible. We want to be ambitious but that requires, of course, the other side of the table also to understand that. And that we can only judge after the 8th of June. At the moment, I cannot judge it.”
Striking a somber note, part of the discussion Saturday among EU leaders and chief negotiator Barnier looked at what would happen if the talks broke down and Britain left without any formal withdrawal agreement. The guidelines promise to work hard for a deal but note that the EU “will prepare itself to be able to handle the situation also if the negotiations were to fail.”
Merkel seemed genuinely perplexed by May’s assertion Friday that the EU 27 were lining up “to oppose” Britain.
“It’s natural that the 27 negotiate on one side when the other has asked to leave,” she said. “But we haven’t aligned ourselves against anything. We’re making it easier for Britain by speaking with one voice. Then we have clear conditions for these negotiations that we want to conduct in friendship and with fairness.”
Some EU leaders expressed little sympathy for May’s position. Asked if a strong election victory for May would change anything for the EU, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel replied, “No. No. Why?”
“She wants to have a new election. It’s her decision,” he said. “I think it’s an internal problem she wants to resolve in the Conservative Party to have not hard Brexit, or soft Brexit, but ‘Theresa’s Brexit,’ and so she needs support from the population.”
What ‘Theresa’s Brexit’ might look like, and if it will be easier for the EU to swallow, remain to be seen.
The EU now plans to approve detailed negotiating directives for Barnier and his team by late May, then wait for London to signal that it is ready to start formal talks. “Let them have their elections. Then they came back and we’ll listen and take some time,” said the senior EU official.
Andrew Gray contributed to this article.