BRUSSELS — Some of the smugness here is gone.
The European Union took a tough line in negotiating its divorce with Britain, wishing to preserve its unity and discourage other countries from wanting to leave the bloc. But now officials worry that what they have achieved may be “a catastrophic success.”
British politics is in meltdown after Parliament’s crushing defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s carefully negotiated plan for Brexit, as the process of withdrawal is known. And no other compelling alternative plan for an orderly exit is in sight, with just 10 weeks to go until Britain is set to exit the bloc.
European Union officials are now worried that Britain could leave without any agreement — a so-called “hard exit” that analysts warn could trigger a recession in Britain, causing huge backlogs, delays and shortages of goods, and badly hit the European economy, too, since more than 40 percent of Britain’s trade is with the bloc.
Yet they see no point in making any concessions now, since Mrs. May has lost control of the process.
“Catastrophic success is accurate, in that the general meltdown of the British political system highlights to everyone what a bad idea it is to leave the European Union,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Relations. “That is success, but catastrophic because at this point there’s no obvious way out of this.”
Some in Britain are urging a delay in its scheduled March 29 departure, to allow time for a new consensus, a leadership change or even a second referendum. But even a delay, which the bloc would probably grant if a deal seemed imminent, has its own complications.
Postponing Britain’s departure, while avoiding chaos, “could still have bad and even catastrophic consequences for the E.U., given the delays involved and the imminence of the European elections,” Ms. Tocci said.
Those elections for a new European Parliament, set to begin May 23, are considered a crucial test of populist and euroskeptic sentiment on the Continent.
An extended Brexit debate and the subsequent uncertainty “would be spun in different national contexts, creating risks and unpredictability that most incumbent governments don’t want to raise,” Ms. Tocci said.
But European leaders seem united in rejecting any renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, or divorce deal, which they believe already goes a long way toward meeting British demands.
For now, the Europeans will wait to see what emerges from Britain’s lawmakers. At the same time, they are preparing for a “no-deal” exit and consider March 29 to be a pressure-cooker deadline for Britain.
“Nobody wishes to end up with a complete breakdown, which would be bad for both sides, even if worse for the U.K.,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But the other E.U. states are reasonably confident Britain won’t do that, since there is no parliamentary majority for a no-deal.”
Once a divorce deal is finally done, Britain’s future relationship with the bloc can be negotiated in many ways, European officials consistently say. But most of the likely options would require retaining the primary sticking point in Britain: the guarantee that no hard border will be created on the island of Ireland.
President Emmanuel Macron of France has been particularly tough on the issue, partly because France sees a larger role for itself once Britain leaves.
But now that he is so unpopular at home and challenged by the anti-Europe “yellow vest” protesters, “the more macabre and gruesome the British situation is, the better given his domestic situation,” Mr. Leonard said.
France will not accept any dilution of the single market, said Christian Lequesne, a professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris. In regard to the European Parliament, France also wants to avoid “an ongoing negotiation with a new Parliament without Britons, while the British are not officially out of the E.U.,” he said, adding, “That’s just too complicated.”
Even Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has been eager to keep close ties with Britain, has said that “it is clear that there cannot be any renegotiations” of the current deal, although she is open in principle to extending the deadline for departure.
From the perspective of the European Union, the whole exercise has been something of a nightmare, said Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Center, an independent think tank in Brussels.
“The E.U. would say it made a number of concessions to the U.K. but preserved its principles, making the best deal possible given British red lines,” he said.
The bloc deals only with governments, not with parliaments or the public, and the European Union was eager to help Mrs. May get her deal through.
“But if it now looks like that is not in her power, no matter what the E.U. puts on the table, the inclination is not to put anything more out there,” Mr. Zuleeg said. “And some still feel that the closer the U.K. gets to a no-deal, the more likely it is that they will compromise.”
There is little regret among European officials about their role in the talks. As Mr. Leonard said, the European Union’s primary goal from the start has been to preserve the single market, get money from Britain, preserve the rights of European Union citizens, make sure that Ireland was protected and make leaving look unattractive to other countries.
The member states held together, Mr. Leonard said, adding, “Brussels never sold out Ireland, as much as the U.K. may have wished it to.”