UK Prime Minister Theresa May will on Tuesday meet with the leaders of Germany and France in a bid to keep Britain from crashing out of the European Union later this week.
Her huddles with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin and President Emmanuel Macron in Paris come on the eve of another tension-packed summit in Brussels focused on the fate of the 46-year-old partnership.
May asked EU leaders on Friday to delay Brexit until June 30 to give her time to strike a compromise with the opposition that lets Britain’s hung parliament back an orderly divorce plan on the fourth attempt.
But the 27 European leaders have already signed off on one extension — the original deadline was March 29 — and have serious doubts that May will somehow break through the political gridlock now.
“We are in a very, very frustrating situation here,” said Germany’s Minister for European Affairs Michael Roth, as he and fellow EU officials arrived for Luxembourg talks on the eve of the summit.
Roth’s French counterpart Amelie de Montchalin told reporters that “we want to understand what the UK needs this extension for, and what are the political surroundings around Theresa May to have this extension”.
“And then comes the question of the conditions of what role we’d want the UK to play during this extension time,” she added.
Some in the EU are worried that if Britain accepts a long delay, its representatives could disrupt EU budget planning and reforms during indefinite Brexit talks, potentially causing more problems than a messy “no-deal Brexit”.
“We’d need a strong political reason to delay,” a diplomat from this camp said.
EU Council president Donald Tusk’s office last week floated a compromise proposal that gives Britain a “flexible” extension of up to a year — which ends earlier should some way forward emerge in London.
According to AFP, a diplomatic source insisted that this was “Mr Tusk’s position, not the position of the Council”.
Merkel takes a more conciliatory approach backed by EU member Ireland — a crucial player whose politically sensitive border with Britain’s Northern Ireland is holding up May’s deal in parliament.
“I will do everything in order to prevent a no-deal Brexit,” Merkel said Friday.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
The diplomatic disarray in Brussels is mirrored by political paralysis in London that has forced May to promise to resign as soon as she gets this first stage of Brexit over the line.
May had been hoping to come to Brussels with either her deal approved or some sort of alternative way forward drafted that could convince the likes of Macron.
But her talks with the opposition Labour Party have made no tangible progress and seem unlikely to find common ground before she flies to Brussels seeking a second delay in three weeks.
“The problem is that the government doesn’t seem to be moving off the original red lines,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Monday.
The government will instead present a plan to parliament Tuesday to outline how long it intends to delay Brexit.
This is part of legislation passed into law late Monday to force May to postpone Brexit if the only other alternative is a no-deal scenario.
May’s talks with Labour have stumbled over Corbyn’s demand that Britain join some form of European customs arrangement once the sides formally split up.
EU officials are ready to include such a promise in the outline of a future relationship, which was agreed with May alongside the withdrawal deal.
But May knows that the prospect of close post-Brexit economic relations could further fracture her government and party ahead of possible snap elections.
Almost any form of European customs arrangement would keep Britain from striking its own global trade agreement and leave one of the biggest advantages of Brexit unfulfilled.