Seen from Brussels, the U.K. is a failed state — at least at the moment.
The EU and its 27 remaining member states have all but lost faith in the British political system to deliver clarity on Brexit any time soon, according to interviews with officials and diplomats.
That has left most in Brussels expecting that the October 31 deadline will need to be extended, but still bracing for the chance of a no-deal catastrophe. And even if disaster is avoided, the EU27 are wondering if another postponement will serve any useful purpose.
The unprecedented U.K. Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson illegally shut down parliament injected further confusion into what was already a bewildering and highly unpredictable situation.
And it confirmed the sense among many in Brussels that the political situation in the U.K. has only grown more dysfunctional since Johnson took over as prime minister. His combative rhetoric in recent days — repeating talk of “surrender” and dismissing an MP’s account of death threats she’d received as “humbug” — and the backlash against it has only added to the sense of uncontrolled chaos in London.
Barclay continued with the upbeat tone that Johnson and his ministers have stuck to since negotiations restarted.
Speaking to a meeting of EU27 ambassadors on Thursday, Michel Barnier, the EU Brexit negotiator, confirmed the obvious. “The situation is still very volatile in the U.K.,” Barnier said, according to a diplomat who was in the room.
Barnier stressed that in New York, Johnson met several EU leaders including Council President Donald Tusk. But while meetings with London are continuing at technical level, Barnier said there was no real progress.
“We were awaiting realistic proposals from the U.K. a month ago and that is still the case,” he said, according to the diplomat.
The Frenchman also described the speech by U.K. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay in Madrid last week as “aggressive” even as he urged member states to remain calm.
In the Spanish capital Barclay had challenged the EU not to assume the U.K. would return to the negotiating table “from a position of weakness” in the event of a no-deal on October 31 and he insisted that the Northern Ireland border problem could be solved during a post-Brexit transition period — a position the EU27 have long rejected.
After his meeting with Barnier in Brussels on Friday, Barclay continued with the upbeat tone that Johnson and his ministers have stuck to since negotiations restarted.
“We are now approaching the moment of truth in these negotiations,” he said after the Brussels meeting, “We are committed to securing a deal. The prime minister has made clear he wants a deal but that has to be without the backstop. Parliament has rejected the backstop three times, I have been very clear with Michel Barnier and Task Force 50 in the negotiations, the backstop has to go. But with good will on both sides a deal can be done.”
But with just a few weeks left before the October 17 European Council summit, the chances of a deal appear to be diminishing fast.
At the start of his tenure this summer Johnson, despite his antagonistic rhetoric, was seen in Brussels as someone they could do business with. They felt he could negotiate and then sell a deal because of his great skills as a communicator and because he was regarded as an opportunistic Brexit supporter rather than an ideological Euroskeptic.
But in a just a few months he has managed to burn whatever positive expectations existed — as he lost parliamentary votes; exiled members of his own party; and suspended parliament only to be slapped down by the U.K.’s highest court.
Some EU27 diplomats now brand Johnson “a serial liar” especially after the scene where, in front of a camera, he told an angry father of a sick child complaining about poor conditions in the health service that there was no media around.
“Boris is lying all the time, I don’t think there’s anyone around left who trusts him,” said one diplomat. At the end of her tenure, Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May was seen as ineffective and incapable to deliver, but she was still respected for her efforts.
“No one thought of her as a clown,” the diplomat said.
The question now is not if Brussels trusts the British prime minister but if the British political system itself is still functional enough to deliver a solution in time for the October European Council, diplomats said.
Most believe it is not.
The Supreme Court’s ruling was regarded as turning point, showing that “the political system has run itself into the ground,” said a second EU27 diplomat. “The system is clearly under stress,” said a third diplomat.
Some speculate about a delay until March; others talk about an even longer period.
Any hopes that something might change after the Tory Party conference, which starts on Sunday, or that there is time for a deal at the European Council are evaporating.
“Johnson will make a fiasco at the European Council,” said the first diplomat, predicting an ultimately futile attempt to negotiate a last-minute agreement. “A deal at the European Council seems off the table,” the third diplomat said.
In London, the government is adamant that Brexit day cannot shift beyond Halloween. “No extension. It would achieve nothing,” said a senior U.K. government official. “History shows that the EU will only negotiate seriously when up against a hard deadline. More can kicking and delay just means more dither.”
Nonetheless, the discussion in Brussels has now turned to the question of who in London might ask for the extension. That request now seems inevitable following the Benn Act — the legislation rushed through by the parliament earlier this month. Johnson has insisted he will not ask for a delay, raising the possibility that he steps down and a replacement caretaker PM makes the request.
While fears of a no-deal remain real on the EU side, it is now seen as less likely — particularly if a U.K. general election goes from being seemingly inevitable to an actual reality. “If there will be elections, there will be an extension” a senior diplomat said.
But there are too many uncertainties at the moment to predict what length of extension might be granted. Some speculate about a delay until March; others talk about an even longer period.
“I’m afraid the transition period could end up being a longer extension,” said another diplomat referring to the time, after the approval of the Withdrawal Agreement, that was envisaged to last until December 2020.
For exasperated EU officials, that is a deeply unappealing prospect.
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.