LONDON — “Humiliation” and “ambush” were the most common descriptions ricocheting around the British news media after the European Union summit meeting in Salzburg, Austria, blew up in Prime Minister Theresa May’s face on Thursday. A less exciting but more accurate term might have been “dawdling” for that almost certainly is what the flap was all about.
Throughout the process of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, or Brexit, Mrs. May has followed a strategy of delaying big decisions until the 11th hour, hoping that her leverage increases with the likelihood of a disastrous, no-deal “cliff edge” departure.
The problem with that approach, as she learned in Salzburg, is that she does not fully control the calendar.
The two-day summit in Salzburg had been expected to produce little beyond some lukewarm words of encouragement that would help Mrs. May quiet critics at home and navigate a coming meeting of her fractious Conservative Party — before she has to make difficult compromises in October and November.
Instead it exploded in acrimony as Mrs. May’s “Chequers plan,” which would keep Britain aligned to European standards on goods and food, was dismissed as unworkable by Donald Tusk, speaking on behalf of European Union leaders. President Emmanuel Macron of France piled on, deriding the more enthusiastic backers of Brexit as liars who had hoodwinked voters into thinking that withdrawal would be simple and highly profitable.
European leaders had expressed concerns before the meeting that Britain’s plan for the future was to have its cake and eat it too. Mr. Tusk, the European Council president, extended that metaphor in an Instagram post in which he captioned a picture of himself offering Mrs. May pastry with the words, “so, no cherries,” referring to the European Union’s rejection of British “cherry picking.”
In a speech on Friday, Mrs. May seemed to double down on her strategy of dawdling, calling it “simply unacceptable” for the European Union to reject her plans without offering an alternative. “So we now need to hear from the E.U. what the real issues are, what their alternative is, so that we can discuss them. Until we do, we cannot make progress.”
In effect, as became evident in Salzburg as events unfolded, Mrs. May and the European leaders are now locked in a game of chicken, with each unwilling to accept the other’s timetable.
At the outset of the Salzburg meeting European leaders were already in an irritable mood over the tone of an article by Mrs. May in the German newspaper Die Welt, and by a similar note of stridency in her remarks to them over dinner.
“I don’t think things were helped by Theresa May saying to the other leaders ‘You have got to compromise because I have compromised,’” said Simon Fraser, a former top official in Britain’s Foreign Office who is now managing partner at a consultancy Flint Global. European officials felt that she was trying to divide and rule by going over their heads to the leaders.
Yet the other thing that set them off arose at a meeting between Mrs. May and the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, to discuss the devilishly complex issue of the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which will stay in the European Union.
Agreeing to a backup plan for solving the Irish border dilemma is a condition of moving ahead. If it can be done, Mrs. May can probably fudge her plans for future trade, compromising on her Chequers proposal but leaving things vague and then negotiating the details in a 20-month “transition period” during which nothing much will change for Britons.
But if Ireland cannot be fixed there will be no “transition period” and a cliff edge departure looms. That could mean trucks marooned in port, stores running out of some kinds of food and some factories deprived of the components that arrive each day from continental Europe.
When Mrs. May and Mr. Varadkar met on Thursday, British news outlets reported, the British prime minister told her Irish counterpart that the latest in a slipping set of deadlines for agreement on Ireland’s backstop — a summit meeting in October — was likely to be missed.
With that, European Union leaders seem to have concluded that Mrs. May was once again trying to delay things, ramping up fears of a no deal, and hoping to force them to soften their stance as Brexit day in March draws closer.
So instead of playing along and saying noncommital things about her Chequers plan, they plotted an ambush, disparaged central parts of it and demanded significant progress on the Irish border at a meeting in October. Without that, a further summit meeting to finalize Brexit, penciled in for November, would be canceled, they said.
For now, the European Union side seems content to sit and watch the fallout from what some see as a cathartic moment in British politics. From the tenor of her remarks on Friday, Mrs. May is sticking to her Chequers plan although it has already prompted two resignations from her cabinet and has been pronounced dead by her critics.
Most experts agree with Mr. Tusk that her plan is unworkable, at least in the short term. Its real use was as a starting point for talks and as a theoretical long-term solution to the border question — a fig leaf that could allow Mrs. May to agree to a backstop plan for Northern Ireland but also suggest it would never be needed.
That convenient fiction has been undermined by Mr. Tusk’s brusque remarks, making it harder for Mrs. May, whose enemies within her own party are sharpening their knives.
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