BRUSSELS — European leaders have a message for Britons reeling from a shock election result: All is forgiven if London wants to abandon its divorce from the European Union.
The sentiment, voiced by France’s president, Germany’s finance minister and a host of Brussels diplomats, comes after British voters quashed Prime Minister Theresa May’s dreams of a commanding majority — and a firmer hand — as she led her nation into Brexit talks. Instead, her Conservative Party lost its majority, and politicians in favor of closer ties to Europe appear ascendant just days before divorce negotiations are set to begin Monday.
May has already rejected the idea of an “exit from Brexit,” and there is little chance London will actually reverse course. But many British politicians see the results of the June 8 election as a signal that voters do not want the full split that May once proposed, but rather a gentler breakup that could leave strong trade ties in place.
Most European leaders would welcome as close a relationship with Britain as possible, but they remain adamant that the more benefits Britain wants from the E.U., the more sovereignty it will have to leave in the hands of Brussels. Meanwhile, they say that the British election has wasted precious time needed for negotiations, which by treaty are limited to two years before Britain is unceremoniously kicked out without any deal at all.
“Of course, the door remains open, always open, until the Brexit negotiations come to an end,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters in Paris on Tuesday, speaking alongside May after a meeting focused on counterterrorism. “But let us be clear and organized. And once negotiations have started, we should be well aware that it will be more and more difficult to move backward.”
The cautiously friendly French comments came hours after Germany’s influential finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, raised the possibility of an all-is-forgiven reconciliation.
“The British government has said, ‘We will stay to the Brexit.’ We take the decision as a matter of fact, as a matter of respect. But if they would want to change their decision, of course, they would find open doors,” he told Bloomberg News, speaking in English.
But May, in Paris, quickly shot down the possibility of a British reversal.
“We stand at a critical time, with those Brexit negotiations starting only next week,” May said.
Diplomats in Brussels say they would be delighted if Britain softens its aims and opts for a status similar to that of Norway, which is not a member of the European Union but takes part in many of its trade and migration agreements.
One option might be for Britain to remain in Europe’s customs union, which would mean that London would leave its power to negotiate trade deals to Brussels but would also maintain full access to duty-free trade with the European Union. That would eliminate the need for a significantly stronger border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, a step that many leaders on that island have worried could spark new violence in a dormant conflict.
But it would still leave large portions of the British economy outside the E.U. sphere. The finance sector and other services — 78 percent of Britain’s economy — are not covered by the customs union.
A different possibility would be for Britain to remain inside Europe’s single market, which would leave the economic relationship with the E.U. largely untouched. That would be a Norway-style step, but many observers argue that it is unlikely because it would force Britain to keep its doors open to E.U. workers. Ending that requirement was the core driver of last year’s successful Brexit campaign.
European leaders’ biggest concern, however, is that Britain’s political chaos is wasting time that could be used to negotiate. May triggered the two-year clock in March. In April, she was tempted by opinion polls that put her Conservative Party 20 points ahead of its Labour rival, and she called the snap election. But she squandered the lead in what was criticized even by her allies as a bumbling and wooden campaign.
The E.U.’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said this week that he was anxious for May to get her house in order.
“My preoccupation is that time is passing — it’s passing quicker than anyone believes — because the subjects we need to deal with are extraordinarily complex from a technical, judicial and financial point of view. That’s why we’re ready to start very quickly. I can’t negotiate with myself,” he said in an interview with several European newspapers.
But European leaders also believe that time is on their side, giving them little reason to compromise early in the negotiations. Britain’s economy will be churned into crippling turmoil if there is a sharp, sudden split, with trade barriers suddenly snapping back to their high, default levels. The remaining 27 nations of the European Union would suffer, but not nearly so much, European leaders say.
“They think Britain is being somewhat in denial of reality at the moment,” said Pierre Vimont, a former high-ranking French diplomat who is now a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based think tank. “And they hope that at some stage Britain will come back to a somewhat more realistic state of mind.”
That means that European leaders have remained firmly united on what their red lines are, even as attitudes appear to be softening on the British side. There has been no willingness to allow Britain full access to Europe’s single market unless it allows European workers access to Britain, for example.
“Even those on the E.U. side who are ready to be more accommodating are not willing to deviate from some of the red lines,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, director of studies at the European Policy Center, another Brussels-based think tank. “If you play by the rules, then we can find a compromise. If we can’t, then time is ticking.”
Even though most people in Europe hope that Britain will remain as close as possible to the E.U., Emmanouilidis said, few were taking pleasure in May’s troubles.
“Everyone is feeling that this is a mess,” he said. “If May had a big majority, then there would be a degree of clarity. Now there is none.”