BRUSSELS — Cue up another cliff-edge week in Britain’s tangled effort to break free from the European Union. If the whole world went to sleep right now but left the clock ticking, we would wake up on Saturday with Britain outside the economic bloc. Since the Brits have not approved a plan for how to leave, there would be sudden economic and political chaos. The English Channel would be encased in fog.
To prevent that from happening, British Prime Minister Theresa May has been in talks with opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, to see if they can come up with a common approach to Brexit. She is also asking European leaders for another Brexit delay, until the end of June. Their discussions start Wednesday at 6 p.m. here in the capital of the European Union and will probably stretch late into the night. Because nothing conveys “emergency” better than late-night talks, right?
Here are a few of the possibilities of where the week could end up.
After May admitted last week that her own efforts had run aground, she began chatting with Corbyn to see if together they could devise a more popular version of Brexit — one that could get parliamentary approval. Both Labour and May’s Conservative Party are divided over leaving the E.U. But the prime minister and the opposition leader have been batting around plans in which Britain might remain cozy with the E.U. after leaving.
In theory, if May and Corbyn strike a deal before midday Wednesday, May could print out 27 copies for the other E.U. leaders and bring it down to Brussels for them to sign later in the day. Britain could be out of Europe with an orderly adieu by May 22.
“Theresa May is leaving no stone unturned to try and resolve Brexit,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on his way into a meeting of E.U. foreign ministers on Monday. Other European leaders “want Brexit to be resolved as quickly as possible, so do we, so do the British people, so do MPs, and so we are doing absolutely everything we can to try and get a resolution to get Brexit over the line.”
No one expects the speedy scenario to work out.
May and Corbyn have alternated between sniping and, apparently, discussing ideas in earnest. But there is little political motivation for Labour to extend a hand to the Conservatives at this point. And British politicians have shown little ability to work together on Brexit for the past three years. No reason to think they would start now.
This is the one that sets stockpilers’ hearts aflutter — and may keep global investors awake all week. The British pound would probably tank. Parts of France and southern Britain could turn into a parking lot while fully loaded trucks wait for customs officials to figure out what to do.
The loudest proponent of a hard line stance toward Britain is French President Emmanuel Macron. He models himself after Charles de Gaulle, the French leader who delighted in provoking conflict with the British. De Gaulle twice vetoed Britain’s effort to join the precursor to the E.U. in 1963 and 1967. Macron could zap them on the way out.
Macron notes that European leaders told May last month that if she wanted a membership extension beyond April 12, she needed to present them with a concrete plan about how she will deliver Brexit. The E.U. has too many other problems to be continually strung along in a crisis of Britain’s making, Macron’s thinking goes. And since there is no concrete plan, there is no reason for an extension, French diplomats in Brussels have been arguing. Belgium and Spain seconded the notion last week, according to diplomats familiar with the discussions.
“It is time for this situation to end,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday. “We cannot live forever on the cusp of Brexit. At some point, there’s an exit.”
Reality check: Yes, a sharp break is a possibility. But this outcome seems unlikely. First, German Chancellor Angela Merkel does not want it. She has preferred a more flexible approach that does not force Britain out before it is ready. And she is just as powerful as Macron inside European discussions and probably more so.
Second, the Irish do not want it either, and they have a key voice in the European debate, because of their border with Britain’s Northern Ireland. The Irish fear a hard border would spark fresh sectarian conflict along old lines. So they are pushing for a gentle approach to Britain.
“From Ireland’s perspective, we’re open to extending the deadline to allow time for these discussions to run their course and come to a conclusion,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters on Monday after meeting the E.U. Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. “A no-deal exit would be damaging for everyone.”
Varadkar has said he doubts any single E.U. country would veto an extension, which requires consensus, given the strong preference of Ireland and others for extra time.
But May knows nothing is certain. So she is flying Tuesday to Berlin and Paris to meet with Merkel and Macron, to try to smooth the discussions.
This is what May asked for last week in a message to European leaders that at the same time declared she would hold elections to European Parliament. The short extension is intended to buy more time but also keep up pressure on the British parliament to pass a deal. If the exit date is too far in the future, some in Britain fear no plan will ever develop.
May’s request has some sympathy in Brussels — one senior E.U. diplomat told me last week her plan was “sensible.” Many here fear an interminable prolongation to the discussions and would be happy to see Britain leave, if it could be done without too much chaos. And some also fear if Britain sticks around too long, it could hold unrelated E.U. policymaking hostage to Brexit.
It is possible E.U. leaders ultimately settle on this plan — if they are more open to convening in late June to deal with yet another possible cliff edge than they are to offering a longer extension now.
Brussels policymakers love to create new words, and this one is a “flextension.” (Some bloody-minded people are calling it “flextension with a guillotine.”)
This is the plan floated by European Council President Donald Tusk. It would set the Brexit date far off in the future. It would calm markets and relieve leaders of the need to fly in to Brussels every few weeks to deal with Brexit issues. And it could be terminated early at any point if the Brits come up with a viable plan to depart the E.U. (That’s the guillotine part.)
Many European policymakers view this as the least bad of a range of unappealing options. Most policymakers do not want Britain lingering in the European Parliament, the E.U.’s legislative body, as it would have to do under this plan. And some fear the lack of pressure would encourage British lawmakers to consider a host of Brexit options that might work in Westminster but would never pass muster in Brussels.
But they think it might just be the easiest way to move forward. The E.U. is great at kicking the can down the road. Some policymakers even allow, if you press them, that they would not mind a forever extension, in the hope Britain never figures out how to leave the bloc and eventually settles back into its longtime love-hate partnership.