Without question, Britain is not ready for the negotiating table, having spent the past year largely avoiding a real debate on the topic, other than a vague argument over the merits of a “hard Brexit” (as a clean break from the European Union is known), versus a “soft Brexit,” which would require more compromise. Brussels, by contrast, has a negotiating team led by a former European commissioner, Michel Barnier, and it has published detailed negotiating guidelines, agreed upon by the bloc’s 27 other member states. While Britain seems more divided, the European Union appears to have achieved an unusual unity.
And the “Brexit” clock is ticking. On Friday morning, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, warned that London faced a firm deadline to complete talks and that any delay raised the risk of failing to reach a deal.
“We don’t know when Brexit talks start. We know when they must end,” Mr. Tusk wrote on Twitter. “Do your best to avoid a ‘no deal’ as result of ‘no negotiations.’”
For now, the scramble in London is over the shape of the future government. Mrs. May’s Conservative Party lost its majority but still won the most seats, doing particularly well in constituencies that backed withdrawal from the European Union, while the revitalized Labour Party did better in urban seats that were opposed to leaving the bloc.
Only a year ago, the vote on European Union membership had seemingly divided the country along clear lines between “Leave” and “Remain.” The vote on Thursday erased such clarity, delivering mixed messages, even as Britain remained deeply split — by region, by class and by generation.
For the past year, the extent of the debate about the exit from the European Union in Britain has been limited to vague promises of repatriating British funds from the European budget, controlling immigration and negotiating a favorable trade deal. Britons have heard little about the cost of leaving the world’s biggest free-trade bloc — not least the tens of billions of pounds owed to Brussels for existing liabilities such as pension obligations and investment commitments in the current European Union budget.
“The British public have not at all been prepared for having to pay a large check to Brussels to settle our debts in this divorce,” said Peter Ricketts, a former ambassador to France and now an independent lawmaker in the House of Lords, Britain’s upper chamber.
Mrs. May had told voters that she wanted to start negotiating a trade deal straight away — something that has been categorically ruled out by the 27 countries on the other side of the table. They have been clear that they want to talk about a divorce settlement first: about the rights of European Union citizens in Britain, and of Britons in Europe (doable, officials say); about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which remains a member of the bloc (trickier); and about the most contentious issue in any divorce: the money.
Only when “sufficient progress” has been made on these issues, the European Union says, can the talks move on to hammering out a framework for a future trade deal and to designing a transitional agreement that would bridge the end of British membership in the bloc — due to formally expire in March 2019 — until a final deal is ratified by all 27 remaining member states.
Even before talks have started, the trust level is at rock bottom. A dinner Mrs. May had with the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, was leaked in astonishing detail to a German newspaper by Mr. Juncker’s team. The leaks were widely condemned by officials — but their content was described as accurate.
Mrs. May had described her vision of a post-withdrawal Britain in much the same way as she had described it to her country’s voters: prosperous, open to the world, and closely intertwined with Europe’s single market — the status quo, but without the open borders, the budget contributions and the oversight of the European Court of Justice. “Let us make ‘Brexit’ a success,” she said at the dinner, echoing the “Have your cake and it too” philosophy long propagated by her foreign secretary, the enthusiastic supporter of withdrawal, Boris Johnson.
The next day, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany gave a speech in Parliament. “I have a feeling that a few Britons are deluding themselves,” she said. “That, however, is a waste of time.”
Indeed, Ms. Merkel and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, seem in no mood for compromise.
“There is no desire to punish Britain,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a former adviser to the German president and now director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund. But for the European Union to remain a viable and attractive club, leaving it must come at a cost, Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff said. “There has to be difference between being in and being out.”
Since taking over as prime minister last July, Mrs. May has talked incessantly about the exit from the European Union, while saying very little of substance. Endlessly repeating that “Brexit means Brexit” and that she would “make a success of Brexit,” the prime minister presented herself to voters as the person to get the best deal for Britain — but without saying what that deal would be.
The Evening Standard, a London newspaper edited by a Conservative former chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, published 10 questions a month ago about the exit from the European Union, challenging the government to answer them. Among them: How is the withdrawal going to increase trade after leaving the biggest free-trading bloc in the world? How is market access for London’s financial services industry going to be secured? How is migration supposed to be cut to the tens of thousands when no one can identify the businesses whose labor supply will be restricted?
“Not one of these questions has been even addressed, let alone answered, by the main political parties in this election,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial on the eve of the vote. “As a result, it provides no mandate for the details of Brexit.”
In any case, officials say, the mandate matters less than the balance of power at the negotiating table in Brussels.
“We have a weak hand of cards,” said one senior British official, who requested anonymity to discuss the government’s position. “The E.U.’s hand is much stronger.”
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