EU ministers baffled and frustrated by latest Brexit chaos
The latest chaos in Westminster has prompted complaints of exhaustion from Berlin and some gentle mockery by the French as EU ministers gathered to discuss a potential delay to Brexit.
As ministers arrived in Brussels to hold their talks, it was clear that the decision by the Speaker, John Bercow, to effectively block a third vote on Theresa May’s deal this week had been the cause of bafflement and frustration with the ongoing saga.
The prime minister is expected to formally seek an extension to article 50 at a summit on Thursday but the lack of a Commons vote this week will leave little nailed down by the time the 27 heads of state and government discuss the issue.
The EU has repeatedly asked the British government to have a clear reason for an extension ready by the time of this summit.
The German EU affairs minister, Michael Roth, appeared visibly irritated.
“We’re really exhausted by these negotiations and I expect clear and precise proposals of the British government why such an extension is necessary,” he said. “It’s not just a game, it’s an extremely serious situation not just for the people in the UK but also for the people in the EU and for my government it’s the key priority to prevent a no-deal Brexit.”
It has been suggested that a further summit on 28 March may be necessary given the lack of clarity on the next steps by the British government, although EU sources suggested this remained highly unlikely.
Asked about the possibility, Roth told reporters: “I don’t have any appetite for substance-less, very abstract discussions and negotiations on the Brexit. Please deliver, dear friends in London, please deliver, the clock is ticking.”
The French EU affairs minister, Nathalie Loiseau, who it emerged on Monday has named her cat Brexit due to its indecision and reluctance to leave the house, said it was necessary to “have a sense of humour” given the state of the process.
Asked whether the French president, Emmanuel Macron, would insist on strict terms on any extension, Loiseau told reporters: “It’s not a question of really strict conditions. We need something new [from the UK] because, if it’s an extension to remain in the same deadlock, how do we get out of this? The Brits have to come with an initiative [that is] clear, credible and supported by a majority.”
“It’s a choice to be made by the UK,” she added. “They’ve said no to a no deal and no to a realistic deal. They have to change their minds on one of the two options. If there’s no decision, and the 29th comes, then it’s no deal. If Britain decides on nothing then it chooses no deal.”
If May had managed to pass her deal this week, a nine-month extension, with an option to get out after three months, would have likely been offered. The longer extension would have involved elections to the European parliament.
A third failure in the Commons would have left May needing to explain what her plans would be. The EU’s leaders would then have suggested a lengthy extension should the prime minister indicate that she was radically changing tack and needed time.
The Romanian EU affairs minister, George Ciamba, whose country holds the rolling presidency of the council of the EU and organises the summits and meetings, suggested the Speaker’s move had unravelled the strategy. “There is less clarity than there was yesterday,” he said.
Ciamba added that Tuesday’s meeting, at which the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, will give a briefing, would be a test of the “mood” in the capitals but that the decisions would be made by the leaders when they gather on Thursday afternoon.
EU officials believe that Bercow’s call for the deal to be “fundamentally” changed before it is put back to the Commons will be satisfied by a change in the UK’s exit date if it is agreed at the summit.