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In Less Than a Minute, EU Tells Britain to Get ‘Realistic’ on Brexit

BRUSSELS — Divided over their other pressing problems, European Union leaders Friday took less than a minute to unite over a warning to Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, that she risks a disorderly and disruptive British exit from the bloc unless she breaks months of political deadlock in London and makes “realistic” proposals.

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Stephen Castle
, New York Times

BRUSSELS — Divided over their other pressing problems, European Union leaders Friday took less than a minute to unite over a warning to Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, that she risks a disorderly and disruptive British exit from the bloc unless she breaks months of political deadlock in London and makes “realistic” proposals.

With Britain planning to end more than four decades of European integration in March, crucial questions remain unresolved. May’s divided Cabinet is constraining her power to negotiate, and the thought is dawning in some capitals that Britain might end up, accidentally, leaving the bloc without any deal at all, which most experts say would be an unmitigated disaster.

After a marathon negotiation on migration that began Thursday and went well into Friday morning, the leaders dispensed with the British withdrawal, known as Brexit, in less than 60 seconds, according to the Maltese prime minister, Joseph Muscat — though they devoted longer to venting their frustration at the glacial pace of progress.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said it was “the last call to lay the cards on the table.” Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, noted that “huge and serious divergences remain,” warned that time was short and appealed for May to put forward “workable and realistic proposals” for the future.

That was a reference to the next, crucial move in Brexit: May’s attempt, scheduled for next week, to win support from her bitterly divided Cabinet for a long-awaited white paper on future relations with the bloc.

In the meantime, the 27 nations increased the pressure on her, urging member countries to step up preparations for “all outcomes” — code for no Brexit deal — and noting there had been “no substantial progress” over backstop plans to prevent the reintroduction of frontier controls between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which will remain in the EU.

May, who had left by the time the 27 leaders discussed Brexit, needs an agreement on Ireland to avoid a disorderly exit — the “cliff edge” departure and sudden change in trade rules so feared by many businesses.

On Thursday night she sought to turn the tables on the EU, arguing that applying its strict rules on the treatment of nonmembers could restrict Britain’s ability to share information on potential terrorists and other criminals, and therefore compromise the security of Europeans.

She has made the same argument for differential treatment on a range of issues, but on security, Britain has much to offer the other 27 nations. So her plea for more flexibility seemed to be aimed at national leaders and over the heads of the European negotiators.

But everyone acknowledges that the next move needs to come from London. Though May is edging, crablike, toward a Brexit that retains close economic ties to the bloc, deep divisions within her Cabinet have paralyzed decision-making in London and put much of the negotiation on ice.

Big multinational companies have recently increased the pressure on May, saying they need more certainty, with firms including Airbus and BMW sounding the alarm. In that business leaders have been reluctant to make public statements on Brexit for fear of upsetting the government and pro-Brexit voters, the warnings seem to reflect a rising fear of a chaotic exit.

May’s party is divided between pragmatists who want to keep many economic links to Europe — Britain’s biggest trade partner — and pro-Brexit purists who prefer a clean break, so May has spent months adjudicating between rival factions at home.

On Friday she plans to hold a meeting at Chequers, her country retreat, which has been billed as a showdown of sorts, as many previous get-togethers over Brexit have been portrayed, only to disappoint those hoping for clarity.

May has invited the whole Cabinet, hoping this will tilt the political balance away from hard-liners like her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who despite his well-known ambitions to succeed May, has drawn back from resigning, a step that could destabilize her already weakened leadership.

Analysts believe that May’s emerging Brexit plans might keep Britain tied to European rules and technical standards for most goods, while providing less access to continental Europe’s market for British financial services companies. Economically that might be a bad deal for Britain, which is heavily reliant on services, but it could allow big multinational companies to maintain supply chains vital for manufacturers such as automakers.

It could also permit Britain to strike trade deals for the financial sector in other parts of the world — partially meeting the demands of Brexit supporters.

Britain would hope for a big concession from the EU through a relaxation of rules guaranteeing the free movement of workers, even though the bloc’s leaders have dismissed the idea as delusional. But some analysts think a deal could be made economically advantageous enough to continental Europeans to make it politically viable, particularly given that Britain would be giving up any say in shaping many rules that it would choose to obey.

May’s main task is to secure approval for an outline for the future that might permit something like this — without causing a political crisis at home. Yet, if the document is too vague, it risks falling flat in Brussels.

In London the infighting is underway as the factions sense the beginning of an endgame. Thursday, May’s former chief aide Nick Timothy warned that she was on course to deliver the “very worst” type of Brexit, urging her to “toughen up.”

Timothy is an ardent Brexit supporter and, as a principal aide to the prime minister, was one of the main architects of her negotiating strategy. He was jettisoned after her disastrous election campaign last year.

She has tried to reassure business that she has negotiated a standstill transition period that is scheduled to start in March during which Britain will stay tied to European rules until the end of 2020. But even that is conditional on a wider deal that includes a backstop plan to prevent the imposition of a hard border in Ireland.

May’s proposals on this have proved difficult for Brexit supporters who see this as a trap through which the temporary measures gradually take on permanence. That has led to a standoff, as on so many other issues.

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