EU leaders have to decide how best to handle what will become the bloc’s most important economic partner and wayward close ally
EU leaders have to decide how best to handle what will become the bloc’s most important economic partner and wayward close ally

What is in a date? When Europe’s leaders set Britain’s new deadline for leaving the EU — a decision they are due to take on Wednesday evening — it will be more than simple housekeeping. 

The length of any delay and the conditions attached will reflect the collective view of EU leaders on how best to handle what will become the bloc’s most important economic partner — and a wayward close ally. 

The EU is divided because the range of considerations is so broad: from domestic politics and economic risks, to concerns over the functioning of the EU and sheer impatience with London. 

Here the Financial Times runs through the key dividing lines, which will continue to have an important bearing on how the EU handles Brexit, whenever the UK may leave. 

Putting pressure on Westminster

In a pre-summit letter to leaders, Donald Tusk, the European Council president, said the EU had “little reason to believe” that Theresa May, UK prime minister, could ratify her exit deal before June 30 — the date she has requested for an extension. 

Mr Tusk’s preference is to set a one-year deadline to provide some predictability and avoid inevitable further extension requests that would distract the EU.

At the other extreme, France’s president Emmanuel Macron thinks the impasse in Westminster justifies a tougher approach, to raise pressure on Britain rather than just to facilitate more political drift. 

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, is convinced time pressure is the key to making the UK move. 

“They do not need more time to think, they need reasons to make decisions,” said one senior EU official. Spain, Sweden, Austria and Slovenia are among those who are sympathetic to this argument. 

On the other side, Germany and the Netherlands potentially see a long extension — into early 2020 — as creating a different type of time pressure on London. With a no-deal taken off the table until next year, Brexiters would have to confront the choice of accepting a withdrawal agreement, or gambling with Brexit not happening at all. 

The politics of the elections

If Britain remains an EU member state beyond May 23, it will hold elections to the European Parliament. Some leaders, notably Mr Macron and Sebastian Kurz of Austria, see that as a potential political downside in itself. 

Much like Mrs May, some EU leaders see the prospect of explaining why Britain is electing MEPs to a chamber it intends to leave as a hard sell to voters. One senior EU diplomat wondered whether Mr Macron sees a further summit shortly before the election as “a golden opportunity to grandstand” over Brexit during a campaign pitting him against populist nationalists in France.

There are raw political calculations for other leaders too. The centre-right European People’s party, which has voiced strong opposition to a long delay, has no MEPs in the UK, while the rival Socialist group is looking forward to a strong showing by the Labour party. 

Polling done by Hanbury Strategy for the Open Europe think-tank showed that Labour could do so well in the polls that it would become the biggest delegation in the Socialist group, helping it to close the gap with the EPP, which has dominated the parliament since 1999. 

The risks of Britain staying a member

When Mr Tusk referred in his pre-summit letter to the risk of the UK being “humiliated”, it was a thinly veiled reference to a French push to curb UK rights while Britain remains a member state in the departure lounge. 

In papers circulated to other capitals, French officials have argued that Britain should forgo its voting rights and influence in institutions, so there can be no risk of London sabotaging the policy of a bloc that it intends to leave. 

This would include preventing Britain from vetoing the budget, using its votes to sway big EU decisions on legislation or nominating a European commissioner. The longer the extension, the stronger the guarantees Paris is seeking. 

Other EU leaders are less convinced. The European Commission looked at all legislation passing in the next year and found no examples of decisions that Britain could irreversibly disrupt. Legally there are also limits to what can be done.

“You cannot create a sort of second-class member state category. Whether you can find some political commitments to compensate for that, that will be the discussion,” said one EU ambassador.

This could include fleshing out how the EU27 could informally agree policy before the UK is invited to formal decision-making meetings.

Advocates of a long extension point to another risk for the EU: what Mr Tusk described as a “a rolling series of short extensions and emergency summits” on Brexit, which would overshadow other business.

One senior EU figure said countries such as Germany and the Netherlands see the case for granting a long extension to allow the bloc to focus on “its own interests” rather than becoming “instrumentalised” in a Conservative party feud. 

The threat of no deal

The tolerance for risk in the Brexit process reflects a fundamental difference in views of how a no-deal exit would unfold. 

Mr Barnier and the French are confident that the UK would be back to the negotiating table within days or weeks of a no-deal exit, willing to meet core EU demands on a financial settlement, citizen rights and the Northern Ireland border. 

Senior officials argue the worst effects could be limited, while the shock of an abrupt exit could bring a degree of realism to UK expectations about the compromises needed in future relations. 

Other capitals are unconvinced, seeing it as a dangerous rupture that would be so hard to repair that it would wreck relations with Britain for years to come. Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister, said a no-deal scenario would be an “extraordinary failure of politics”. 

Even if such an outcome is avoidable, Mr Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, have made the case that a short extension would harm EU business interests. 

A so-called rolling cliff edge would force companies to waste money on preparing for the uncertainty of a hard exit on dates that are changed at the last moment. “Our job is to reduce the risks of Brexit for businesses and citizens, not to create a new cliff edge every month,” said one senior EU diplomat. 

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