As pictures go, it spoke volumes. On Thursday evening in Brussels, Bulgaria’s permanent representative to the EU, Dimiter Tzantchev, tweeted a photograph he titled “In the corridors of the European Council art 50”.
In a play of light and shadow, as if in a Golden Age painting by a modern-day Rembrandt or Frans Hals, a tight cluster of perhaps two dozen figures, some standing, some crouched, pored over a screen: senior EU officials, member state diplomats, Europe advisers to heads of government.
They came from the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, France. Among them were the bloc’s deputy Brexit negotiator, the chief Europe advisers to Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, the deputy secretary general of the European commission, the ambassadors from Dublin and The Hague.
There was, of course, no Brit. After two years of increasingly frustrating Brexit talks with a hopelessly divided government incapable of explaining what – in the realm of the real – it actually even wanted, Europe had had enough. “It’s like dealing with a failed state,” one official confided before the summit.
This was the EU taking back control – if not, crucially, of the final decision, at least of the timetable. The people in the picture were plugged into EU leaders in the summit room, figuring out a plan that would, finally and unavoidably, force Britain to confront reality and choose.
Under the dual-deadline mechanism they came up with, the UK will remain in the EU until 22 May if MPs back Theresa May’s deal this week, but leave on 12 April without a deal – unless by then it has found an alternative way out of the current Brexit chaos, agreed to hold European elections and asked for a much longer delay.
It was a clever solution, many on the continent felt. “It ensures that the British recognise Brexit is their responsibility, and obliges them, finally, to accept the consequences of the divorce they are seeking,” wrote Le Monde.
It says, in effect, all options – deal, no deal, rethink – remain open, but you have three weeks to choose.
And it was the result of a very European compromise. Some governments, including France, Spain and Belgium, at first favoured a much tougher approach, with any delay at all beyond the original 29 March deadline, if the third meaningful vote failed, conditional on an explicit new purpose such as a second referendum or elections.
Chief among a group of leaders with little faith in the British government, the French president had long felt that a lengthy extension would be pointless, even damaging. A third rejection of Theresa May’s Brexit deal would “guide everyone to a no deal for sure”, Macron said on arrival at the summit, adding: “We are ready.”
Merkel, however, was markedly more cautious, believing that the EU27 should do everything they could to delay, soften, and perhaps even reverse Brexit. “Our patience is unlimited,” a German official said. “For us, the relationship with the UK is a central pillar of the UK itself and a key element in its future architecture.”
Backed by the Dutch, Irish and others, Merkel also felt it would be a terrible idea for the EU’s future relationship with Britain to begin with the UK crashing out. “We will do everything we can to ensure this does not happen,” she said; for her, Macron’s hard line increased the risk of a disastrous no-deal Brexit.
What brought them together? Behind the consensus that produced the EU’s plan were a few key considerations. First, the EU27 were not going to allow endless UK can-kicking to weaken the bloc’s legal order or political stability – which meant an unconditional delay, extending uncertainty past the European elections on 23-26 May, was out, not just legally but politically.
Leaders dreaded an unfinished, festering Brexit bolstering Eurosceptic forces on a continent that – from the gilets jaunes movement in France to the rise of populist nationalists like the Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands and Vox in Spain – has enough such problems on its plate already.
Theresa May had requested a delay until 30 June, the day before the new European parliament is sworn in. That was never going to fly. But now even 22 May, the date proposed in an early draft of the summit conclusions, looked unacceptably late.
Few wanted to risk their election campaigns being contaminated by Brexit. And on 9 May, the EU27 were due to discuss their future without Britain at a summit in Romania; Brexit surely had to be sorted, one way or another, before then. So the deadline for a decision had to be earlier.
Second, the bloc was determined not to fall into what many considered to be a trap that May, intentionally or not, had effectively set it: allowing Britain to blame the EU in the event of a chaotic no-deal Brexit.
“No deal would be bad news for all economically, even if it would be far worse for Britain than the 27,” a Dutch official said. “But politically it would be terrible. We had to find a way that left all options open for London – that basically ensured that no deal, if it happens, is Britain’s responsibility.”
But third, the EU27 wanted to move on because, quite simply, it has other things to deal with. Last week’s summit was once again hijacked by Brexit, which delayed a session on relations with China. Tensions with Russia, internal strains with the bloc’s nationalist governments, trade and security in the age of Trump, climate change, a slowing economy – all are more deserving of attention than Brexit.
Despite their exasperation with Brexit Britain, the EU27 recognise that the liberal postwar order now faces unprecedented challenges, and that no one in the bloc will be well served by a bitter divorce and a resentful, badly weakened UK. So a path to a reconsidered, potentially softer Brexit, entailing a relaxation of May’s red lines, should remain on the table for a little while yet.
At the end of six hours of talks, the EU leaders reached agreement on what one official described as an “unusually elegant” solution. At the insistence of Macron, Belgium’s prime minister Charles Michel and Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg, the 12 April cut-off for a decision between no deal and a new approach was chosen because it is “the true deadline – the last date on which the UK could, if it had to, organise European elections,” a French official said. But if MPs back May’s deal this week, the UK stays until 22 May to allow the necessary legislation to pass – because, with departure agreed, there is no risk for the European elections. “This is a response that protects our interests,” Macron said. “It is up to the British to remove their ambiguities. We have none.”
It may not work, of course. As Rem Korteweg of the Dutch thinktank Clingendael said, the EU’s plan assumes that UK politicians will play ball: “Tory internal politics could throw a spanner in the works. This will go down badly with Brexiters who have started to shout ‘humiliation … all one big EU diktat’. We are not out of the woods.”
But if it does not, it will not be the fault of the EU27 leaders – or the fault of the people in Tzantchev’s photograph, whose joint efforts helped ensure that the decision on exactly where Britain takes Brexit from here will now belong, inescapably, to Britain.