EU Brexit negotiators are “watching the BBC and eating popcorn”, in the words of one of them, as Britain’s domestic rows over leaving make for compelling TV but frustrate Europe’s hopes for a clean break.
Unsure whether Britain will crash out of the European Union 10 weeks from now, prolong the agony in the hope of salvaging an orderly divorce or even change its mind and stay, its neighbours are torn between “Brexit boredom” and a worry it is distracting from their own pressing problems as campaigning gets under way for EU parliament elections in May.
Hours after a packed and rowdy House of Commons tore up the deal Prime Minister Theresa May spent two tortuous years arguing over, only a few dozen of their 751 counterparts in Strasbourg showed up on Wednesday to hear EU negotiator Michel Barnier tell them all he could do is wait for Britons to make up their minds.
Several in the debate praised Britain’s democratic history and were bemused by its poisonous meltdown over Brexit. Among them was Dutch conservative Esther de Lange: “Collectively, they don’t know what they want,” she said of watching the Commons in action. “But, boy, do they hold great speeches about it.”
Compared to a full house to mark the 20th anniversary of the euro, the EU currency Britain snubbed, the hundreds of empty seats around her were a mark of Europe’s weariness with Brexit.
But it also belied anxiety that paralysis in London will distract and divide leaders on other EU problems, from a slowing economy amid global trade disputes to deep divisions over money, migrants and Brexit-inspired Brussels-bashing by many members.
French President Emmanuel Macron says he does not want to “waste time” on Brexit as he presses to reshape the euro zone and the broader Union after the European elections in four months’ time.
His EU affairs minister Nathalie Loiseau said Brexit took up a third of her time: “It’s too much,” she said, “Because we have many other things to do in Europe than dealing with a divorce.”