BRUSSELS: The EU is steeling for a possible collapse of Brexit negotiations whoever wins Britain’s increasingly close general election this week, officials and analysts say.
While many in Brussels still bet on Prime Minister Theresa May’s return to power, despite a fading poll lead, the real focus is on British threats to walk out when the talks start.
European Union Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier says he is ready to begin immediately but has warned London of the risks of walking away without agreement on Britain’s departure.
“A big punch-up or blow-up is not unlikely” after Brexit negotiations formally start, an EU source told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity.
“A ‘no deal’ is possible — absolutely.”
May and her Brexit minister David Davis have repeatedly warned that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, particularly when it comes to a 100-billion-euro exit bill that Brussels is demanding.
London is also still insisting on having talks on a future trade deal at the same time as negotiations on the actual divorce, something Brussels won’t allow.
The EU is eyeing June 19, 11 days after Thursday’s election, for the formal start of two years of tough talks, with informal contacts “soon” after the election result.
While Brussels is officially neutral about national elections, European sources say they want a “strong leader in London” who can negotiate backed by strong support from the British electorate.
While this might seem counterintuitive in an adversarial process, the idea is that if May, for example, increases her slim majority she would be less beholden to eurosceptics in her own party.
This, the reasoning goes, would make her able to make compromises on thorny issues such as the exit bill, and on safeguarding benefits and immigration rights of EU citizens living in Britain.
But the increasingly harsh tone on Brexit and the threats to walk away which have emerged during the election campaign have worried some in Brussels.
Frenchman Barnier insisted when EU states gave him his formal mandate on May 22 that quitting talks was “not my option, my option is to succeed.”
He strongly warned that if Britain does so he would “advise everyone to explain well what the consequences are”, not least for a future EU-British trade deal.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has delivered a similar warning about the threats. “My experience in politics always was that those who are going out have to come back,” he said.
Andrew Duff of the European Policy Centre said that Britain and Brussels risked “diametrically opposed” positions, and urged the EU to draft a Brexit plan B.
“If we go on like this, the probability is that the Article 50 talks will fail,” he wrote in a commentary.
However one European diplomat with experience in international negotiations said the election was just “noise”, and that until Britain came to the table the EU wouldn’t actually know what its strategy is.
‘Everyone is waiting’
Analyst Amandine Crespy at ULB university in Brussels said within the EU “everyone is waiting” to see what emerges.
If May wins “the discourse of hard Brexit shows her limits: if she’s too hard she will be reproached because she’ll have to give way on some points.”
If Corbyn wins the situation is more unclear, with the Labour leader remaining something of an unknown quantity on Brexit. He has pledged to uphold the result of last year’s Brexit referendum, but has also talked about giving visas to European workers, in a more lax stance than May’s.
“It will be interesting if Corbyn wins — that could overturn all the cards,” Crespy said.
As with any divorce, the EU is meanwhile keen to show that it is moving on altogether.
Brussels has repeatedly insisted that the Brexit talks won’t distract from its bid to rebuild stronger after years of crisis and growing euroscepticism.
Juncker’s right-hand man Martin Selmayr said recently that the EC chief would only spend half an hour a week on Brexit.
The election of pro-European French President Emmanuel Macron has given new impetus to these efforts, seen as even more important as the EU copes with a difficult partner over the Atlantic in the form of Donald Trump.
“The EU has been very busy these last few days with other subjects” such as Trump and a summit with China, another European source said. AFP