'Neither a Plan A or a Plan B' What Strategy is London Pursuing with Brexit Talks?

For weeks, the Brits and the Europeans have been talking at cross purposes in the Brexit negotiations. Prime Minister Theresa May gave a major speech in Florence last week, but the mistrust is still deep.

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There's a building in downtown London, adjacent to the prime minister's office, which scoffers call the "Ministry of Magic." It's one of the most well-protected buildings in Britain, and very few people are given access. The person in charge at this building is a white-haired man with a high opinion of himself and a consistently smug smile. His job is to restore the country to its former greatness.

David Davis moved into the newly established Ministry for Exiting the European Union a little over 14 months ago. To decorate his new residence on Downing Street, he ordered a map of Europe from the 18th century, the period when Britain was still a global power. He also chose illustrations from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One line of the famous poem reads: "Alone, alone, all, all alone / Alone on a wide wide sea! / And never a saint took pity on / My soul in agony."

The Berlaymont building, one of the most massive structures in Europe, is located on Rue Archimède in downtown Brussels. The 240,000-square-meter complex houses thousands of officials with the EU executive, the European Commission, including a man who also has a high opinion of himself, but has been looking somewhat anxious lately. His job is to hold together a group of 27 nations.

About a year ago, Michel Barnier got appointed as the European Commission's chief negotiator for exit talks with the United Kingdom. In Brussels, he has come to be known as the man with the tables. In his past position as European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, his aim was to use as few tables as possible. He believed that the greener the documents, the more he had achieved. He uses the green pen more rarely nowadays.

All Key Issues Unresolved

David Davis is 68, and Michel Barnier is 66. One could say that the hopes of an entire Continent and of an island off its coast are resting on the shoulders of these two men. But it can't be said that they have fulfilled these hopes. The chief negotiators have met in Brussels three times, and in each case all key issues concerning Brexit remained unresolved, most notably the exit bill for Britain.

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The British are behaving as if they had all the time in the world. And yet the opposite is true. Brexit is set to become reality in March 2019. Until then, EU projects on issues running the gamut from cod fishing quotas to nuclear waste, projects that have taken decades to develop, will have to be dismantled and reassembled to reflect that the British will no longer be part of them. Thousands of laws and guidelines must be revised or rewritten. Every paragraph has the potential to cost banks, companies and service providers vast sums of money. Every bullet point could upend the lives of the more than 3 million EU citizens living in Britain and the 1.2 million Brits residing elsewhere in the EU, changing the everyday lives of students, migrant workers and retirees.

Missed Opportunities

And those EU citizens are becoming increasingly impatient in demanding at least a rough timetable, so that they can make the necessary preparations. But the negotiators have been wrangling each other with bland niceties for months now. Last Friday, British Prime Minister Theresa May traveled to Florence to appear in a church, where she proclaimed her faith in an amicable solution. She called for more time and vaguely promised more money -- a gesture of generosity, in her view. But from the European Union's standpoint, it was just another missed opportunity.

There is little to suggest that European leaders will acknowledge, at the EU summit in mid-October that the British have made "adequate progress," the prerequisite for talks on future relations to move forward. Each passing week is making a situation more likely that both sides allegedly want to avoid: a cold break.

If there is a clever strategy behind all this, then no one has comprehended it yet. It is more likely that David Davis and Michel Barnier have made no progress because they are puppets in a play in which, particularly on the British side, too many smug and fanatical people are pulling the strings.

Davis' political career had already more or less ended when May appointed him as her Brexit enforcer in July 2016. He developed a reputation in the 1990s as an EU-skeptical minister of state for Europe, and he was only briefly acquainted with Barnier at the time. An extreme sports enthusiast, Davis appeared to be a reasonable choice for the job, at least until he misled May into making the most disastrous mistake of her time in office. It is alleged to have been the Brexit minister who convinced his prime minister in the spring to call for new elections. His expectation was that a landslide victory for May would flush away the opposition in parliament, silence the country's Brexit opponents and give the government an extremely strong mandate for negotiations.

But he was mistaken.

In fact, May not only lost her absolute majority in June, but also any authority to gain the support of the country, or at least her party, for its most important future task. Since then, it seems, almost every member of the government has felt entitled to disseminate half-baked Brexit ideas to the people. Depending on one's interpretation, the Conservatives want to pay Brussels zero, 20 billion euros ($24 billion) or 40 billion euros. Some government officials claim that little will change for EU citizens working in the United Kingdom, while others say that everything will change. Some say that there will be extensive concessions, and others insist there will be none.

'Constructive Ambiguity'

May has allowed all this to happen because she is equally susceptible to blackmail from pro-EU and anti-EU members of her own party. When Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, her fiercest rival, wrote an article recently without consulting May, in which he idealized a hard break with Europe as a "glorious" Brexit, she did not remove him from his position. Instead, she merely said wearily: "Boris is Boris." The fact that this administration has not imploded yet is solely the result of a unifying fear of the new Labour Party superstar, Jeremy Corbyn. A socialist heading the government? The mere thought triggers survival instincts among Conservatives.

If Davis is troubled by the mess the British have created for themselves, he doesn't show it. It also doesn't seem to trouble him that four senior officials have already left his ministry. He appears to be free of self-doubt, and even fellow party members say he is the only person they know who can strut while sitting down. Davis has summarily elevated the squabbling in Westminster to the level of "constructive ambiguity," and claims the negotiations are going splendidly. So splendidly, apparently, that he sometimes leaves the office early.

"He is not a man for details," says a long-standing associate.

Davis describes the 14 policy papers his ministry has published since mid-August, which outline future relations with the EU in everything from trade to exchanging data, as "creative and inventive" proposals.

An Attempt to Buy Time

On closer inspection, however, the policy papers all seem to rely on the same contradictory spirit. In almost magical fashion, they assume that everything will simultaneously change and remain the way it is today. A border between Northern Ireland and Ireland? Well, yes, but it would be an invisible one. Abolish the customs union? Of course, but replace it with a model that "mirrors" this customs union. The impression in Brussels is that the British want out of the EU, and yet somehow they want to stay in.

With the policy papers, Davis is trying to strike a balance among all opposing interests in Britain, says James Chapman, his former chief of staff. "They are intended for the homefront." The truth, though, is that they are unable to paper over one fact: "There is neither a Plan A nor a Plan B."

Even Theresa May was unable to erase this image with her speech in the Basilica Santa Maria Novella in Florence. She did adopt a conciliatory tone, indicating that London would continue to live up to its financial obligations during a two-year "implementation period." But what exactly does this mean? No details have been provided. Instead, it merely underscores her previous threat that "no deal is better than a bad deal." Ultimately, the trip to Italy was little more than an attempt to buy time.

Serving Many Masters

On Friday afternoon, less than two hours after May's speech, Michel Barnier sat in a white leather armchair in his spotless office. There's a picture on the wall that Barnier has had since he was 14. It shows former French President Charles de Gaulle and former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer shaking hands in front of the Élysée Palace in Paris.

Barnier's telephone rang constantly Friday afternoon. Experts from European capitals and members of the European Parliament wanted to hear his assessment of May's speech. "We will now have to see how the British concretely translate these messages, some of which were positive, into the upcoming negotiations," he said diplomatically. "I need details." May called for creativity in clarifying future relations. But it prompted Barnier to shake his head. "There is no creativity when it comes to the single market. We will not weaken the single market."

In contrast to Davis, the tall Frenchman is viewed by many Europeans as the embodiment of reason. And Barnier, calm, thoughtful and impeccably dressed, knows just how to cultivate that image. He has held several cabinet posts in France and was a member of the European Commission, and he knew Angela Merkel at the time when both were the environment ministers of their respective countries. He operates on a level playing field with top politicians, but he also serves many masters.

The 27 European heads of state and government have tied him into a tight corset for the Brexit negotiations. For the time being, Barnier is only permitted to talk about three issues: the future rights of EU citizens in the UK, the amount of the exit bill and the border problem between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. His task force is required to report to the delegations of the 27 EU countries each week. Meanwhile, Barnier's deputy, vigorous German trade expert Sabine Weyand, maintains contact with the other side of the street, the European Council, the powerful body representing the leaders of the EU member states.

This tedious process is frustrating to the British, but it builds trust in the rest of the EU. This is presumably one of the reasons why Britain's hope that it could divide the EU has, at least so far, failed to materialize. Shortly after taking office, Brexit Secretary Davis apparently instructed his staff to create databases on the economic situation in the 27 other EU countries. His goal was to uncover weak points, so that he could sow discord and unrest in the EU. But the plan failed. One of the current ironies is that, from the British perspective, the chaos erupted on the wrong side of the English Channel.

Surprising Unity

In contrast, the EU countries on the mainland remain surprisingly united behind chief negotiator Barnier. This is because, to the chagrin of the British, a Brussels certainty has been suspended. For once, it isn't possible to sow discord among the remaining EU countries in an area where there has always been trouble: the issue of money.

When it comes to Brexit, neither donor nor recipient countries in the EU want to give anything to the British. This is an unusual alliance. Countries that are net payers into the EU budget, like Germany and the Netherlands, fear that they will have to fill the hole left behind by the British in the budget.

On the other hand, countries that benefit particularly from agriculture assistance or subsidies for underdeveloped regions fear that the donor countries will not fill the budget gap. This is why they are insisting that the British pay their debt down to the last cent. "No member state should have to pay more because of Brexit," says Barnier.

He takes great pains to maintain unity. He meets with the Irish foreign minister in Luxembourg and pays his respects to Italy's prime minister. He knows how concerned the Polish government is about the many Polish nationals living in London. And he is familiar with Dublin's fears that Brexit could pulverize the laborious Irish peace process.

Disentangling Decadeslong Relations

Barnier and his task force are meticulously planning the disentanglement of decadeslong relations with the British. In Barnier's view, when the negotiations are this complex, there is no point in waiting until the last minute to resolve all the contentious issues.

The British, on the other hand, are approaching the talks the way they usually approach negotiations in Brussels, such as those surrounding the euro bailout programs for Greece: Nothing is decided until everything has been decided. All major issues remain unresolved until the leaders come together for one long night of negotiations. Many in London are now betting on Chancellor Merkel. They're hoping that she will finally exercise her authority now that the German election is over, but this too could be another grandiose miscalculation.

So, even though both sides are negotiating, they are talking at cross purposes. It's as if one side were playing cricket and the other soccer. This isn't an approach conducive to achieving results, especially not on the critical question of how high the exit bill will end up being for the British.

The EU's demands have been on the table for months. They range from 60-100 billion euros and also include future pension payments for British EU officials. During the last round of negotiations, the British showed their astonished EU counterparts a presentation with 23 charts. After three hours of discussion, it was clear that the British see no reason at all to continue paying anything after Brexit. To lighten the mood, Davis patronizingly referred to "moral obligations."

Hardly able to contain his rage, Barnier held a press conference. He said the British were trying to squeeze out of their obligations relating to long-term loans for Ukraine, development aid for Africa and funding for a green infrastructure until 2020. Davis, for his part, said that the talks had gone relatively well.

It isn't as if there were no movement at all. The talks on civil rights have at least thrived to the extent that Barnier's task force has consulted with the EU member states on how to continue negotiations. A key issue is whether EU citizens in Britain will be able to depend on their rights in the future, and sue to defend them before the European Court of Justice. The Europeans had hoped that May would provide such a guarantee in Florence, but she did not, probably because there is little that Brexit hardliners back at home detest more than the court.

Constant Provocations

There is certainly latitude within the negotiations, officials in Brussels say. But May must constantly anticipate a revolt by enemies of the EU within her party. In fact, all it would take is four dozen votes in the British parliament to push through a vote of no confidence against her, and lists to this effect are already making the rounds. The EU negotiators are undecided over how solid compromises can be achieved under these circumstances.

Conversely, the British are also wondering whether the Europeans truly even want an agreement. They find the constant provocations from Jean-Claude Juncker difficult to stomach. For months, the European Commission president has vituperated against Britain, made fun of Davis and the English language and as such has made himself an ally of nationalist hardliners.

"Juncker isn't helping us," says Nicky Morgan, a pro-EU member of the British parliament with the Conservatives. "The Europeans need to be careful not to overdo it, or the mood will tip once and for all."

At the moment, both sides are heading for the most extreme form of Brexit: A breakup with no deal at all.

"I believe the Conservatives are prepared to do that," says political scientist Matthew Goodwin of the University of Kent. This is even understandable, from their perspective, because a soft Brexit would mean that Britain would have to continue abiding by EU rules without the right to participate in any decision-making in Brussels. This would be tantamount to treason for EU haters, with their exaggerated sense of patriotism. Right-wing populist Nigel Farage, one of the driving forces behind Brexit, has threatened to "return to the front" if that happens.

The other alternative, hard Brexit, would have a devastating impact on the British economy. "But we haven't been talking about rational decisions here in a long time," says Goodwin. "For the Tories, Brexit is far more important than economic data. It's a matter of national consciousness."

Given the circumstances, the European Commission is also beginning to address the question it has preferred to ignore until now, and not just because of the headlines: What happens if it goes wrong? The entire process threatens to come apart over the money issue, in particular, according to an internal document for the German parliament. It reads: "This issue still threatens to bring down the negotiations."

Instructions have already been issued internally to prepare for a scenario of failure. The member states were asked to designate contacts to make preparations for a Brexit without an agreement.

"Brexit," says a senior EU diplomat, "does not follow an economic, but rather a political logic."

That is, if logic is even the right word anymore.

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