BRUSSELS: European Union leaders fear Prime Minister Theresa May’s shock loss of her majority in the snap British election will delay Brexit talks due to start this month and so raise the risk of negotiations failing.
“We don’t know when Brexit talks start. We know when they must end,” tweeted Donald Tusk, the EU summit chair overseeing negotiations that the EU had planned to start on June 19.
His reference to the March 2019 deadline when Britain will be out of the European Union with or without an agreed deal to avoid legal limbo for people and businesses reflected mounting concern that British chaos could further disrupt all of Europe.
“Do your best to avoid a ‘no deal’ as result of ‘no negotiations’,” Tusk said, calling for urgency to avert the risk that, having bound Britain in March to a two-year countdown to Brexit, May’s failed electoral gamble could waste further time.
Guenther Oettinger, the German member of the EU executive, warned that a weak British leadership was a problem for the Union: “We need a government that can act,” he told the Deutschlandfunk radio station. “With a weak negotiating partner, there’s the danger that the negotiations will turn out badly.”
Oettinger’s boss, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, told a German paper: “It’s up to the British to make the next move … We’ve been ready to negotiate for months.”
Juncker’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier made clear talks could only now start once Britain has a team in place: “Brexit negotiations should start when UK is ready,” he tweeted.
“Timetable and EU positions are clear. Let’s put our minds together on striking a deal.”
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was quick to scotch any suggestion that Britain might do a U-turn and ask to stay in the EU – something that would need EU agreement.
Few Europeans voiced much sympathy for May. Some compared her to her predecessor David Cameron, who sought to silence Eurosceptic fellow Conservatives by calling the referendum on EU membership which ended his career and shocked Europe.
“YET ANOTHER OWN GOAL”
“Yet another own goal, after Cameron now May, will make already complex negotiations even more complicated,” tweeted Guy Verhofstadt, the liberal former Belgian premier who is the European Parliament’s point man for the Brexit process.
German conservative Markus Ferber, an EU lawmaker involved in discussions on access to EU markets for Britain’s financial sector, was scathing: “At the most untimely point,” he said, “The British political system is in total disarray. Instead of strong and stable leadership we witness chaos and uncertainty.”
May, who had campaigned against Brexit last year, delivered her terms for withdrawal on March 29 that included a clean break from the EU single market. She then called a snap election hoping for a big majority to strengthen her negotiating hand.
That was also the broadly desired outcome in Brussels, where leaders believed that a stronger May would be better able to cut compromise deals with the EU and resist pressure from hardline pro-Brexit factions in her party to walk out without a deal.
Elmar Brok, a prominent German conservative member of the EU parliament, said Europeans would be disappointed: “Now no prime minister will have that room for manoeuvre,” he said.
European leaders have largely given up considering the possibility that Britain might change its mind and ask to stay.
Most now appear to prefer that the bloc’s second-biggest economy leave smoothly and quickly. Having recovered from last year’s shock, Germany, France and other powers see Brexit as a chance to tighten EU integration without the awkward British.
As news of British mayhem broke, Juncker was launching a new push for an expanded EU defence project which Britain long opposed, fearing a clash with the U.S.-led NATO alliance.
FEAR OF COLLAPSE
A breakdown in negotiations could lead to Britain ceasing to be an EU member without having in place the kind of legal agreements that would avoid a chaotic limbo for people and businesses. That would also make it improbable that Britain could secure the rapid free trade agreement it wants with the EU after it leaves.
In a note to clients, UBS wrote that a breakdown in talks was now more likely and would make it harder to reach a trade deal: “A tighter political balance could make it easier for Eurosceptics … to prevent the government from offering the compromises needed to secure a trade deal.”
Talk in Britain that a different ruling coalition could seek a “softer” Brexit than May has proposed, possibly seeking to remain in the single market, is also problematic for the EU.
While the other 27 states would quite possibly be willing to extend to Britain the same kind of access to EU markets they offer to Norway or Switzerland, they have made clear that would mean Britain continuing to pay into the EU budget and obey EU rules, including on free migration across the bloc, while no longer having any say in how the Union’s policies are set.
“Maybe there won’t be a hard Brexit,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Boerge Brende said. “Maybe Britain will have to show greater flexibility in the negotiations.”
But EU officials question how any British government could persuade voters to accept a Norway-style package and so would be wary of starting down the path of negotiating it for fear of ending up without a deal that both sides could ratify in 2019.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)
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