EU to May: Pass the deal or drop dead in three weeks

The good news for Theresa May: She got her Brexit extension from Brussels. The bad news: After the British PM pleaded with the European Council for an hour and a half to get a 90-day delay on the Article 50 deadline, the EU granted two extensions.

The really bad news: Nothing’s changed except the drop-dead date, and even that didn’t change by much:

European Union leaders took back control of the Brexit process from British Prime Minister Theresa May, saying Friday they believe the risks were too great and that action was needed to protect the smooth running of the world’s biggest trading bloc. …

At marathon late night talks in Brussels, they rejected May’s request to extend the Brexit deadline from March 29 — just one week away — until June 30.

Instead, the leaders agreed to extend the date until May 22, on the eve of EU elections, if she can persuade the British parliament to endorse the Brexit deal. Failing that, May would have until April 12 to choose a new path.

Basically, it’s a two-week grace period to organize a third vote on the same package. If that fails, the EU will proceed with the crash-out option. If it passes, they will only give May another six weeks to pass the rest of the necessary legislation for the exit. The EU finally drew the hard line to protect itself before the next round of EU elections, as they did not know how to carry the UK as a member even temporarily without legitimate elections for British MEPs.

May wanted a lot more time to prevent the crash-out. Unfortunately, she couldn’t explain to the other leaders what she planned to do with it, other than keep running in circles. According to one insider, May couldn’t even commit to getting the third vote or a plan to salvage the situation if it failed:

Earlier on Thursday, May had made an address to leaders described as “90 minutes of nothing”, by sources, during which she failed to persuade the bloc that she had a plan to avoid a no-deal Brexit. …

But her appeal “dismally” failed to offer any answers as to what she would do if the deal was blocked by MPs again, sources said, provoking EU leaders into taking matters into their own hands and in effect taking control of her future.

“She didn’t even give clarity if she is organising a vote,” said one aide to a leader. “Asked three times what she would do if she lost the vote, she couldn’t say. It was awful. Dreadful. Evasive even by her standards.”

When leaders asked May what she was going to do if her deal was voted down, an official added that the prime minister replied that she was following her plan A of getting it through. It was then that the EU decided that “she didn’t have a plan so they needed to come up with one for her”, the source added.

The sound we just heard was the EU throwing in the towel on May. If she hoped to win some concessions on the deal itself with this pitch, that failed miserably. May also failed miserably in her national speech to woo MPs to her position after shifting blame to them for opposing the deal in the previous two votes. Parliament doesn’t want May’s deal, and the EU won’t make any more concessions. The two extensions basically acknowledge that there’s very little chance May can rally Parliament at all, and they’re going to leave her to deal with the fiasco on her own.

Bloomberg’s Lionel Laurent writes that the EU basically kissed off May. They’re hoping a better bargaining partner emerges from the wreckage, and tout suite if possible. Otherwise, the Brexit infection could spread:

A blunter interpretation would be: The first delay is for May, the second will be for whoever almost inevitably replaces her as prime minister. Given that French president Emmanuel Macron gives her deal a 5 percent chance of passing through the U.K. Parliament, you can see where this is headed.

The thing keeping hope alive for some of the EU heads of state is that U.K. lawmakers have opposed a no-deal exit and are in favor of an an extension. It suggests there may be more benign partners to work with than someone who appears to put Conservative Party unity ahead of the national interest, and economic sanity. …

Philippe Lamberts, a member of the European Parliament who sits on the Brexit steering committee, told me last night that he was opposed to the unconditional delay and was pessimistic about the ability of British MPs to get their act together. His view is common in Brussels. The longer Brexit drags on, the more “the gangrene” of the U.K. will infect the inner workings of the EU. It’s why Macron toyed with the notion of an amputation, before reportedly being talked down by Germany’s Angela Merkel.

Brexit has been a glue for EU member states thus far. But the prospect of the U.K. sticking around for European elections and the appointment of a new Commission threatens to drive a wedge between traditional liberal allies such as the Netherlands and Germany and federalists like France. The exchanges between Macron and Merkel were tense. Dodging the no-deal bullet has consequences.

Failing to dodge it might have even greater consequences on both sides of the English Channel. That’s why the EU gave May the extra two weeks, hoping against hope that she can suddenly find some competence and build enough trust to have her parliamentary majority pass her bill on the third try. That is, if May can actually put it to a vote. For the moment, May’s government will try to call a vote on Monday or Tuesday, assuming that Speaker John Bercow allows it. They believe that May won enough changes to the context to allow for a revote:

Downing Street hopes that the acceptance of assurances on the backstop that the prime minister obtained in Strasbourg from Jean-Claude Juncker will ensure John Bercow, the speaker, allows a third vote. The spokesman said:

“It is obviously a decision for the speaker but there is now EU approval of the legally-binding assurances she negotiated with Juncker in Strasbourg. I would point to those as significant issues.”

They’d better hope that works. There may not be enough time left between now and April 12th to prorogue Parliament and call a new session in order to allow for a vote, and there might not be enough support left for May to lead the next session in any case.

Meanwhile, May’s still trying to put the best spin on the situation. Consider this 90 seconds of nothing.