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The real Brexit breakdown

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It’s been more than two years since British voters demanded that the country leave the European Union, shocking their leaders, the continent and the world. But while the vote was a political earthquake, the reality of Brexit so far has been month after month of stalled negotiations with little progress.

Ahead of a major summit in Brussels on Wednesday between British Prime Minister Theresa May and the leaders of the other 27 E.U. nations, talks between British and European negotiators appear to have broken down yet again. With about six months until Britain leaves the bloc, the negotiations are theoretically in the home stretch. But how they will end is as unclear as ever.

“This isn’t an ordinary endgame,” wrote Bloomberg’s Therese Raphael this week. “All the major pieces are still on the board and pretty much the full range of potential outcomes — from no deal to no Brexit, and everything in between — remain live possibilities.”

May still needs to come up with a plan that satisfies the rest of Europe and her party at home, which is increasingly torn between those who support May and those who think she is driving too soft a bargain — and are potentially angling to replace her.

The expectation had been that May would present an outline of a deal on Wednesday, but that, too, has fallen through. European Council President Donald Tusk said on Tuesday that there are “no grounds for optimism” that progress will be made at the summit.

The biggest issue, the fate of the Irish border, “looks like a new version of the Gordian knot,” Tusk said, according to the Guardian. “Unfortunately, I cannot see a new version of Alexander the Great.”

When Britain leaves Europe, its only land border with an E.U. member state will be the currently open one between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Given the still-recent history of violence there — not to mention the considerable cross-border trade — there is little desire to reinstate a hard border with physical checks and customs controls. But no one has yet figured out how to avoid doing so.

Prime Minister Theresa May responded to questions at a summit in Brussels Oct. 17. (Video: Reuters)

May has played with the idea of keeping Britain in the E.U. customs regime on a temporary basis, allowing both sides more time to reach a permanent agreement on the border issue. E.U. leaders, meanwhile, have suggested that only Northern Ireland stay in the customs union for the time being, while the rest of Britain leaves.

But May’s government depends on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Irish party that balks at the idea of trade barriers that would separate the region from the rest of Britain. Members have suggested they could withdraw their support if such barriers were erected, hobbling May’s already weak rule. The Irish government, meanwhile, has reiterated that a decision on the issue cannot be delayed or deferred.

The Irish border is far from the only unresolved issue in Brexit negotiations. But it’s a revealing one, demonstrating how hard it is to find compromises on major issues involving parties with dramatically different interests. And time is now running out: The deadline for reaching a deal is March 27. Any deal will need to be ratified by both the European and British parliaments before then.

The Post’s William Booth and Karla Adams have explained how bad a “no deal” Brexit could be: grounded airplanes, massive traffic jams at ports, empty grocery shelves and even shortages of medicine. This may be a worst-case scenario, but there’s no reason to not take it seriously. Indeed, some Brits have already started stocking up on key supplies, much like the “doomsday preppers” we see in the United States.

One study recently released by Britain’s Institute for Government suggested there were five scenarios for how things could unfold over the next few months. Only one would result in an “orderly exit” for Britain from the E.U. — all the rest were “no deals.”

Who is to blame for that? To be honest, there is enough to go around. But it seems likely that May, who barely survived a disastrous election in June, will get most of it. If she falls, former allies like Boris Johnson, who is far more of a Brexit hard-liner, are sure to pounce.

The truth is that no other leader may have done better in the same circumstances. In a lengthy profile of May for the New Yorker, Sam Knight suggested that the British prime minister faces an impossible situation, with populist demands on one side, practical realities on the other and no way to truly reconcile both. “May’s best hope has been to contain the damage on all sides,” Knight wrote.

In the meantime, there is a country to run — at least in theory. The British government remains almost exclusively focused on leaving the E.U. “The country — as an administrative entity — has virtually stopped working,” Businessweek put it recently. “Brexit, Brexit, Brexit,” Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator told the New Yorker. “Can you imagine a country that, for years, the clock stops?”

It’s not clear when the clock will start again. Even if Brexit can be pulled off, more complications lie ahead. May has spoken with President Trump of their hope for a “big and ambitious” U.S.-U.K. trade deal, but a senior British official told Bloomberg that the idea is a pipe dream; Trump, leading a far bigger economy, will accept only a tough deal on his own terms.

John Major, perhaps the only living former British prime minister who enjoys some semblance of a good reputation, summed up the problem with a speech in London this week. After Brexit, Britain will be a “middle-sized, middle-ranking nation that is no longer supercharged by its alliances,” he told the audience. “Suddenly, the world will be a little chillier.”

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