BRUSSELS,. Britain’s political meltdown happened so fast that at one point even European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker didn’t know what was happening.
“Has he resigned?” a bewildered Juncker could be heard asking an aide at the end of a press conference, as the first reports came through that British foreign minister Boris Johnson had followed Brexit minister David Davis out of the door.
But the questions now on everyone’s lips in Brussels go far deeper.
Can British Prime Minister Theresa May remain in power? And will the chaos impact negotiations to the extent that Britain is now more likely to crash out of the EU without a divorce agreement?
“Of course. I think everybody should fear a no deal,” a senior EU official told AFP when asked if the meltdown in London increased the chances that the two sides will fail to agree terms by March 2019.
The European Union has, once again, largely been reduced to a spectator as May clings to power after the two ministers resigned in protest at her strategy for post-Brexit trade ties with the bloc.
In public the EU reaction was withering.
EU President Donald Tusk said he hoped Brexit could still somehow be reversed. Juncker remarked sarcastically that the resignations “clearly proves… there was big unity of views in the British cabinet”.
‘Not the end of the world’
But in private the reaction is more cautious.
“We are not indifferent, but we are spectators to a spectacle. Johnson wasn’t the negotiator but he was an important pillar to secure the Brexit side,” an EU diplomat told AFP.
In practical terms, the next round of Brexit talks are due to go ahead as scheduled on July 16 despite the fact that Davis has gone and been replaced by Dominic Raab, a largely unknown quantity in Brussels.
“It’s probably better if these things didn’t happen but it’s not the end of the world,” a European source said. “The UK is still leaving, we are still going to negotiate next week.”
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier told AFP that he had a “frank and cordial relationship” with Davis but said the British reshuffle made little difference to the chances of reaching a deal by the October target.
“In any case, to conclude the negotiation will be difficult,” he said.
Some in Brussels hope that May might actually have strengthened her position against a possible mutiny by ridding herself of two of the most prominent Brexit supporters in her cabinet.
“Walking out of the government won’t make Brexit go away, but as an optimist by nature, I hope that it creates some unity needed to find a parliamentary majority for an agreement that works,” European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said.
The EU diplomat added that “this needed to happen all along”.
“The main question is what is the stability of the May government now? Are we going to get a deal across the finish line and be able to sell it to the British parliament let alone the Europeans?” he added.
Many fear May cannot be pushed too far.
“For now the risk is placing Britain in the worst possible position in March — namely a brutal, non-negotiated exit,” Amandine Crespy, a European affairs expert at the Brussels Free University, told AFP.
“That would lead to last-minute emergency negotiations which would necessarily be much more unfavourable to Britain than a negotiated exit.”
‘Complete political suicide’
The key point for the EU is that it will not compromise in the negotiations just to keep May in place.
“Our position has been the same since the Brexit referendum. We don’t adapt our negotiating line as to whether that will strengthen or weaken the UK government — partly because we are slow moving and can’t adapt to changes in Westminster,” the EU official said.
“Even if we had a plan to strengthen Theresa May, I’m not sure we could do it.”
Brussels insiders insisted the EU would not let Britain “cherry pick” the advantages of the single market while trying to curb immigration.
Crucially they said they would defend at all costs a “backstop” plan to prevent the return of border checks between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland — the one key plan that May rejects.
Speculation that the EU could postpone Brexit if May falls was “media hype”, the official said, adding that it would be “complete political suicide in the UK to do that”.
For now, the Europeans are waiting for May to come up with her formal “white paper” on her plans for Brexit — knowing that it may well contain many ideas they have already dismissed out of hand.
“Our fear is that when we get it, it simply is not good enough,”