European leaders brace themselves for more chaos

Pro-Europe speakers, politicians and celebrities pose for a photograph at a rally for Best for Britain and People's Vote campaign in London, on Dec 9, 2018.
Pro-Europe speakers, politicians and celebrities pose for a photograph at a rally for Best for Britain and People's Vote campaign in London, on Dec 9, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS • With Britain and the European Union's carefully crafted divorce deal headed for likely failure in the British Parliament this week, European leaders are bracing themselves for more Brexit chaos - and warning that they have little to sweeten the bargain for London.

The landmark 585-page agreement, a thicket of legalese that extracts Britain from the European Union after more than four decades of membership, has proved politically toxic in Westminster. Everyone from hardcore Brexiteers to pro-EU Britons finds aspects to dislike. But both British Prime Minister Theresa May and EU leaders warn that the deal is the best on offer, given the red lines on both sides of the negotiating table.

Europeans have gone slack-jawed at the political chaos in London, with normally demure diplomats comparing the process there to a slow-motion car wreck. They say they can offer little other than cosmetic tweaks that might help Mrs May save face with her own Conservative Party.

And they have begun to accelerate their emergency planning to prepare safety nets that could avoid some of the humanitarian and economic chaos that might happen if Britain crashes out of the EU on its deadline of March 29 with no other plan in place.

Said Ms Lotta Nymann-Lindegren, a former Finnish diplomat who focused on Brexit issues and now works at the Miltton consultancy: "It has taken many people time to understand that things really are as bad as they are in the UK.

"It has been a real eye-opener that an issue like this can cause such domestic political chaos."

Although Mrs May could still pull off an upset victory, discussions in both London and Brussels revolve around the expected margin of her defeat. Scores of Conservative lawmakers have already declared their plans to rebel against Mrs May.


In Brussels, officials say they are willing to keep discussing the deal - just so long as nothing of substance changes. They could offer non-binding declarations to make clearer that the remaining EU members do not want to lock Britain into an economic marriage against its will. They could tweak the part of the Brexit deal that lists the aspirations for their future partnership, which does not have the force of law.

If talks seem to be on track, they could nudge the Brexit deadline from March to late June, when a British-free new European Parliament will be seated.

"Usually there are some - I can joke - tricks," the frank-talking Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said last month of the way the EU finds consensus among its many members. "We promise to promise."

Advocates of a hard Brexit claim that they still have leverage in Brussels because the chaos of a deal-free British divorce would also snarl Euro-pean economies.

EU negotiators say that the British are badly deluded and that their own business leaders actually fear a no-deal Brexit less than concessions that could give British businesses advantages in the vast EU market without the obligations of EU regulations and taxes.

Both sides are now drawing up emergency plans about how to minimise chaos if the worst happens.

On the EU side, preparations have accelerated in recent weeks, as the depth of the British chaos becomes clearer, according to diplomats involved in the discussions. Last Friday, the British government warned of border disruptions for up to six months if the United Kingdom crashes out of the EU.

Within a matter of days, the EU and Britain could impose measures to allow planes to keep flying, medicine and food to continue flowing into the United Kingdom, and British citizens living in Europe to remain there. But any plans will be temporary, analysts say, leaving deep uncertainty.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2018, with the headline 'European leaders brace themselves for more chaos'. Print Edition | Subscribe