BRUSSELS — Prime Minister Theresa May used to promise “strong and stable” government. Fellow EU leaders used to believe her.
But then came almost three years of Brexit missteps and mayhem. For the EU, Britain’s 2016 vote to leave was a shock; what has happened since has left the reputation of Britain’s prime minister, and the country’s political institutions, badly tarnished.
May triggered the formal two-year countdown to Brexit while Britain was still divided over departure terms. Then she called a snap election to strengthen her bargaining hand — and lost her majority in Parliament.
Since then, Brexit has become gridlocked, with May too weak to push through her plans and lawmakers too divided to force an alternate course.
Leaders across Europe have watched with surprise, dismay and mounting frustration as Britain’s widely respected institutions — a 1,000-year-old Parliament, an electoral system built to supply stable majority governments — failed repeatedly to make crucial decisions while the clock ticked down.
“The patience slowly, slowly is running out,” one EU official said at this week’s Brussels summit as the bloc’s leaders — without May — debated whether to step in to prevent Britain crashing out of the bloc on its scheduled March 29 departure date.
In response to May’s request for a three-month delay, the bloc offered a short two-step extension, with a deadline of April 12 for Britain to choose between May’s deal, no deal, a long delay or no Brexit at all.
EU leaders said they had stepped in where Britain had failed, to avert the chaos of a messy Brexit next week.
“The European Union has, very clearly, been faced today with a British political crisis,” French President Emmanuel Macron said as he left the talks early Friday. “British politicians are incapable of implementing what the people asked them.
“It’s a real political and democratic crisis. But this crisis is British. In no way must we (the EU-27) become stuck in this situation.”
Newspapers in Britain and the EU were united in seeing the EU’s offer as proof Britain had lost control of its Brexit destiny.
“EU takes control of Brexit as May is sidelined,” said the front page of the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph. Spain’s El Pais said the EU had given May a “20-day ultimatum.” France’s Le Figaro said the bloc’s “confidence in Theresa May has evaporated,” while Liberation summarized the mood of EU participants at the summit as “irritation, tiredness and a clear sense of being fed-up.”
Some European politicians lay blame for the crisis squarely on May, a politician whose strengths — tenacity, stamina, a remarkable ability to keep plowing on in the face of opposition — have become weaknesses.
When May addressed EU leaders at the summit on Thursday, many were frustrated that she would not reveal a “Plan B” if her twice-rejected divorce deal was thrown out by Parliament again. They were downright alarmed by the impression that she would opt for a “no-deal” Brexit rather than accept a long delay.
“When she was asked what happens if you can’t get the deal through next week, the answer was basically, ‘I don’t know,'” Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian member of the European Parliament, told the BBC. “And that is of course scary.”
Giving Britain’s Parliament a few more weeks to decide on Brexit offers lawmakers the chance to take control out of May’s hands — if they can agree on a course of action. Many pro-EU lawmakers favor a long delay followed by a soft Brexit or remaining in the EU.
Either of those options would likely lead to May’s departure — either voluntarily or under pressure from an exasperated Conservative Party.
EU leaders know better than anyone the burden of leading a government. For some, frustration over Brexit is tempered by sympathy and respect.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently compared May to the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who loses limb after limb in battle but fights on, insisting “it’s only a flesh wound.”
Rutte said he had not meant it as an insult.
“Her tenacity is enormous,” Rutte said at the summit. “I can only with the highest admiration and astonishment look how she is doing this.”