May’s Brexit tactics shock EU leaders

By BLOOMBERG

BRUSSELS • Tensions over Britain’s divorce from the European Union (EU) ratcheted higher last Friday as Prime Minister Theresa May’s approach was described as “alarming” by one of her peers, and leaders said time was running out to avoid a catastrophic breakup.

One EU premier, who heard May’s address on Brexit over dinner last Thursday during the EU summit in Brussels, said he was shocked by the tone and left thinking the risk of talks collapsing without a deal was now almost 50-50, having gone in considering the likelihood to be about 20%, an official he briefed said. A no-deal split is the scenario businesses fear most.

His view was reflected in other leaders’ public statements.

“The feeling that dominates is the impression that the British continue to negotiate with the British and not with the EU,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said, adding he was “not very optimistic”.

With just four months to go before the UK and EU’s self-imposed deadline for a deal on the divorce, European officials say they are stepping up preparations in case Britain crashes out of the bloc into a legal limbo. May is still struggling to get her warring Cabinet to agree on what Brexit should mean in practice, and her attempts so far to find something that’s acceptable to all have been quickly rejected by the EU side.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar again seemed to preempt May’s latest attempt at compromise, saying an idea that has been floated wouldn’t work. He dismissed any UK attempt to stay in the EU’s single market for goods, saying it could form a precedent that could lead to the breakup of the bloc.

The mood is increasingly bitter and EU patience with May’s inability to get her warring government in line is wearing thin. On hold for now, high-level talks will get going again in mid-July once the UK makes its position clear.

“A great deal of work” is still needed, EU President Donald Tusk said after the summit.

“This is the last call to lay the cards on the table.”

Work on the central issue of how to avoid physical checks on the Irish border — which will become the UK’s frontier with the bloc — hasn’t made any real progress since December, a second EU official said. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said it’s the “first, second and third” priority in talks.

Friday was the EU’s last formal gathering of leaders before they return to Brussels for a summit in October when they’re supposed to sign off the Brexit deal. But EU and UK officials now acknowledge privately that keeping that timetable is unlikely.