Brexit: EU countries ‘really exhausted’ by UK and could block Theresa May’s delay, Germany warns

Jon Stone
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Brexit: EU countries ‘really exhausted’ by UK and could block Theresa May’s delay, Germany warns

Germany and France have warned that Theresa May will need to present a “clear and precise” reason why she needs a Brexit delay when she meets EU leaders later this week if she wants to have any chance of them approving it.

Michael Roth, Germany’s Europe minister, said EU member states were “really exhausted” by the UK’s approach to talks, warning the situation was “not just a game”.

Meanwhile, his French counterpart Nathalie Loiseau said Ms May would have to present “something new” that did not just result in an extension of “the same deadlock”.

“It’s not a question of really strict conditions. We need something new because if it’s an extension to remain in the same deadlock, how do we get out of this? The British have to come with an initiative that is clear and credible and supported by a majority,” the French minister told reporters on her way into a meeting of ministers in Brussels.

Arriving at the same meeting, Mr Roth added: “We’re really exhausted by these negotiations and I expect clear and precise proposals of UK government why an extension is necessary. It’s not just a game. It’s an extremely serious situation not just for people in UK but also for the people in EU.

“For my government it’s the key priority to prevent a no-deal Brexit. I don’t have any appetite for substanceless, very abstract discussions and negotiations on Brexit. Please deliver, dear friends in London, please deliver. The clock is ticking.”

Ms May will travel to Brussels on Thursday to meet with the 27 other EU leaders, after parliament approved an extension to Article 50 – which would delay Brexit past 29 March. Under EU treaties, such an extension must be approved unanimously by all 27 other member states – meaning each one has an effective power of veto.

Speaking on Tuesday after meeting EU27 ministers, chief negotiator Michel Barnier said leaders would have to assess what is in the best interests of the bloc before making a decision.

“I am here to ask a very legitimate question on behalf of the European authorities – which is why do you want an extension? What for? What’s the objective of an extension? What use would it be? An extension has to be useful,” he said.

“Does an extension increase the chances of ratification of the withdrawal agreement? Will the UK request an extension because it wants a bit more time to rework the political declaration?”

Michel Barnier speaking in Brussels after the meeting (EbS)

He added: “What would be the purpose and outcome? And how can we ensure that, at the end of a possible extension, we are not back in the same situation as today?”

Mr Barnier warned that “extending uncertainty without a clear plan” would have political and economic costs for the EU, and that a longer extension needed to be linked to something – such as a new political process in the UK to find a solution to the deadlock.

Also speaking after the meeting, Ireland’s deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said there was “a lot of concern amongst EU member states and partners about the prospect of a long extension of Article 50”.

“An extension brings risks with it, obviously through a European election cycle and the establishment of a new commission, and the EU is dealing with a lot of things at the moment, so the disruptive effect of Brexit for another nine months, or another whatever period of time, is something that I think people will need convincing on,” he said.

Mr Coveney added that “there will need to be a very persuasive plan to go with that, to explain why that’s needed, and how they will use the time to conclude the outstanding issues that haven’t been agreed in London in the context of the Brexit process”.

He warned that an extension would not necessarily be accepted: “I think people would be very foolish to assume that this is just some kind of political game and that an extension will automatically be facilitated. I do think EU leaders will be demanding.

“The EU does not want to grant an extension on request for the UK that brings us back to the same point that we are at today, in three months, six months, nine months’ time, having wasted a lot more time”.

The comments by the French, German and Irish ministers are the latest expression of frustration from EU leaders at Britain’s approach to talks, which is seen in Brussels and elsewhere on the continent as erratic, poorly planned and divided.

On Sunday Ms Loiseau joked in an interview with the French press that she had nicknamed her pet cat “Brexit” because of the way in which it meowed loudly to leave the house but then stood there when she opened the door.

If the UK does not get an extension it will either have to pass the Brexit deal, revoke Article 50 to cancel Brexit, or leave without a deal – with the latter option expected to cause economic chaos.

Theresa May has been criticised previously by EU leaders for turning up to meetings in Brussels without clear and precise technical demands. At a summit in December Ms May was reportedly asked, “what exactly is it that you want?” by German chancellor Angela Merkel, while she pleaded for assistance to pass her Brexit deal, but could not spell out exactly what measures she wanted.