It is the nightmare scenario that many EU and U.K. Brexit officials have long feared: a disorganized crash-out, not because either side wants it but because political events spin out of control.
Some Brexit officials fear that moment has now arrived with Brussels and London locked in a standoff: EU27 countries don’t want to grant an extension of the October 31 deadline without knowing Britain will hold a national election, while opposition parties in Westminster say they will not vote to allow a snap election unless the EU has approved an extension and set a new deadline.
EU diplomats met in Brussels Friday morning and announced that they agreed on the need for an extension but would not make a decision until Monday or Tuesday of next week — further raising the stakes.
The situation is so tense at the moment that many officials on each side are refusing to comment publicly, or even be quoted anonymously offering their commentary.
But conversations in the last 24 hours in Brussels and London reflect the same sinking feeling among senior officials that they are now caught in a terrible Catch 22. France notably does not want to approve any extension without a clear political shift in London, while the U.K. parliament is apparently unable to muster the two-thirds majority needed to set a general election unless and until the EU27 approve an extension.
“What happens if for some reason we don’t have clarity even on Monday?” — EU diplomat
It is a bizarre game of chicken, in which the two sides are not actually racing toward each other, and a head-on collision, but rather stuck in a freeze-frame as the end of a mountain road with no guardrails rushes toward them.
While each side waits for the other to move, the deadlock stands to worsen.
Johnson has set up a vote in the House of Commons on Monday on the question of whether to hold a December 12 snap election. If opposition parties block it, that would give further evidence to French President Emmanuel Macron and others in the EU advocating a tougher stance who say the political situation in London is paralyzed, and therefore Brussels must apply maximum pressure.
But a short extension of the October 31 deadline — perhaps to November 15 — would offer no guarantee of breaking the logjam and the EU could find itself forced to grant a series of short delays that neither yield ratification of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement nor leave time for a British election campaign.
By that view, the best the EU could do is wait until close to the current witching hour on Thursday night — Halloween — to see if Westminster blinks. But waiting that long also carries risks.
Council President Donald Tusk had hoped to avoid this by pushing urgently for approval of an extension the moment that it became clear on Tuesday that the legislative process in Westminster had stalled.
Officials ultimately expect leaders to step in to prevent a no-deal catastrophe, but the continuing uncertainty with less than a week before the deadline has left them more anxious than at any point in the nearly three years of negotiations.
After the roughly two-hour meeting of EU diplomats on Friday morning, officials said that no matter the risks it would be absurd for the bloc to do anything before the outcome of Monday’s vote in Westminster. And yet, officials acknowledged there was a continuing danger that the situation would only grow more difficult.
“The fear I see is that Monday could be too late, it would be the 28th, we would have only three days left,” one EU diplomat said. “What happens if for some reason we don’t have clarity even on Monday?”
“We’re up for an election, but we want commitments on the deal and we want to know exactly what the EU is saying about an extension” — Diane Abbott, UK shadow home secretary
In the U.K., the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has said repeatedly that he wants clarity from Brussels before agreeing to back a snap election.
Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, speaking on the BBC’s “Today” program on Friday morning, said: “We’re up for an election, but we want commitments on the deal and we want to know exactly what the EU is saying about an extension.”
Sam Gyimah, a Liberal Democrat MP, speaking to Sky News on Friday morning, said that his party would consider a snap election if it could not secure agreement on a new referendum. “Obviously we will look at an election,” he said. “But what we have said is we need to first of all see what extension the EU grants. And the prime minister has been lobbying the EU to not give an extension to January 31 so it’s a very confused picture.”
The confusion stands to continue until next week.