BRUSSELS—As the clock ticks down on the U.K.’s planned departure from the European Union, EU leaders are still waiting for a signal from British Prime Minister Theresa May on the next steps in negotiating a critical divorce deal.
In the meantime, they are losing confidence in her capacity to deliver a majority in her own parliament for any agreement, increasing the chances of a no-deal exit that neither side wants.
One thing European officials say is now certain, although British leaders deny it: If there is a deal, the U.K.’s scheduled departure on March 29 will have to be delayed.
Privately, in Brussels and beyond, European officials say the bloc’s leaders may eventually accept some additions or attachments to the divorce agreement they sealed last November if Mrs. May convinces them Parliament would pass a deal. Both sides are seeking a separation agreement that settles the terms of Britain’s exit and sets up talks on future trade and economic relations.
But those officials now worry that, even if they do make further concessions, Mrs. May still may not be able to drive the deal through her deeply divided legislature.
“We have a trust issue here about capacity, not intentions,” said a senior EU official.
Mrs. May is seeking legal guarantees that an arrangement aimed at avoiding the emergence of a physical border in Ireland—a concession by Brussels extracted by British negotiators—won’t be used to trap the U.K. permanently into a customs union with the EU. That would make it difficult, or impossible for Britain to pursue free-trade deals with other countries, a key promise of pro-Brexit leaders.
That so-called Irish backstop was a central reason why the withdrawal agreement Mrs. May negotiated in November was defeated last month by more than 200 votes in the House of Commons.
However, senior officials in Brussels and some EU capitals are unwilling to put ideas on the table for a solution they believe must come from London. “It’s not up to us to construct a Commons majority,” says one.
In a tweet Wednesday, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, wrote, “No news is not always good news. EU27 still waiting for concrete, realistic proposals from London on how to break #Brexit impasse.”
Mrs. May has been to Brussels and Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay was in Brussels and Strasbourg this week for talks with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and senior EU lawmakers. EU officials heard nothing that gave them more clarity about what concessions Mrs. May intends to seek, according to people involved in the talks.
The best-case scenario now, according to British and EU officials, is that a compromise comes together in late March, possibly at a scheduled EU summit on March 21 and 22. European officials are now working on the assumption that unless Britain exits on March 29 with no agreement, there will be a minimum three-month delay to Brexit.
EU officials have repeatedly ruled out reopening the Nov. 25 agreement and amending the backstop in public.
With U.K. lawmakers rejecting Theresa May’s Brexit deal, WSJ’s Stephen Fidler explores what options remain available to the prime minister before the country is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29.
Some British lawmakers and officials have pointed to the economic downturn in Germany, arguing that a no-deal Brexit would deepen the risks for Europe. They view Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent call for creativity in search of solutions as a sign that the leader of Europe’s largest economy is preparing for a last-minute change to the backstop that would allow the British, for example, to pull out of it unilaterally.
Yet a number of European officials from across the bloc say this is a misreading of the situation. No deal would be bad for all but the EU has staked its credibility on protecting Ireland’s interests.
Speaking to reporters in Strasbourg on Tuesday, Mr. Barclay signaled the minimum of what Mrs. May is aiming for: sufficient guarantees about the temporary nature of the backstop for British Attorney General Geoffrey Cox to draw the legal conclusion that the U.K. couldn’t be held in it indefinitely against its will.
Written assurances from top EU officials that the backstop is a last resort and that they have no intention of trapping Britain permanently in the arrangement have so far proved insufficient.
Providing those guarantees in the agreement could, British officials believe, convince all but a hard core of 20-30 pro-Brexit lawmakers to back the withdrawal deal. Labour lawmakers in pro-Brexit constituencies would then help Mrs. May win a parliamentary majority.
This can’t be taken for granted though, and an almost accidental British exit without a deal remains possible despite the damage it would inflict on the economy.
If an amended deal passes, EU decision makers appear willing to delay Britain’s departure day for up to three months to allow the U.K. Parliament time to pass the necessary legislation. If it fails amid political chaos, officials in Brussels, Paris and Berlin could be open to granting an extension for nine or 12 months.
However, EU officials say that the two main EU legal services are in agreement that an extension for longer than three months would create a fresh problem. It would require the U.K. to hold elections, probably in May, for a new European Parliament, which sits for the first time on July 2, when the U.K. would still be inside the bloc. A decision to extend must be agreed unanimously by all 27 EU governments.
For the EU and Britain’s main political parties, such elections could be a nightmare in which politicians rerun the 2016 referendum campaign and inject further division and turmoil into U.K. and EU politics.