Brexit is supposed to be next week. This Thursday, the heads of state of the 27 remaining member nations are meeting in Brussels to consider an appeal from Theresa May, prime minister of the departing United Kingdom, for an extension to closing time. It's getting late.
Theresa May claims she can beat the pompous gasbags in her Tory government into shape by 30 June, having failed to put manners on them by the original departure date, 29 March.
Whatever about May's chances of converting the Conservatives, what options are open to the 27, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
The European leaders face a difficult choice, according to Le Monde.
They have two days to decide on a response to Mrs May's plea for an extension, and their decision has to be unanimous. That will not be easy, given the complexity of the topic and the different implications for different member nations.
- European Commission warns against May's short Brexit delay
- Juncker says 'no decision' expected on Brexit at Thursday's EU summit
German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to show sisterly solidarity, and is calling for a conciliatory response. She may also have an eye on declining sales of German luxury cars.
French President Emmanuel Macron is taking a harder line. That's inevitable for a convinced European, but he also has serious yellow vested domestic problems to sort out.
The Irish Prime Minister will legitimately wonder if the so far intractable problem of the land border between the remaining Republic and the departing North of Ireland can be resolved by another three months of blather and bluster.
To delay or not to delay, that is the question
Le Monde suggests that it may take longer than today and tomorrow to hammer out an agreed response, saying that a decision might not be forthcoming before next week. The 27 leaders have been warned to keep their diaries free for a possible exceptional summit for more of the same next week.
Left-leaning Libération warns that the weather at the European Council meeting today and tomorrow is likely to be cold and stormy. Blizzards rather than breakthroughs are expected.
First, Theresa will make her pitch. She can expect cold politeness. Then she'll be shown the door and the real Europeans will settled down to decide her fate.
Remember that May has met the other leaders several times before, always promising to sort out the chaos, only to find that her government colleagues back in London have moved the goalposts once again.
Right now, no one is sure where the goalposts are.
Plausible and possible scenarios
So, what are the options before the 27?
If they ignore May's letter or otherwise refuse her request for extra time, then, on this day week, at midnight in London, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union without a deal.
That's the political equivalent of a black hole.
It's not something the 27 will want, since it opens an enormous can of worms in such crucial areas as air transport, import/export and fishing, and would probably provoke chaos in the English Channel ports.
It's a leap into the unknown, and politicians are not good at that sort of thing.
But European patience is running out. A diplomat quoted by right-wing paper Le Figaro says Brussels is sick to the teeth with the whole business and now feels it's being held hostage by the fuddy-duddies in London.
Time and patience are running out
“Exasperation” and “exhaustion” are two of the words recurring in all reports on the current situation.
There is a growing body of opinion among EU diplomatic staff that a no-deal exit with all its potential consequences is the only way to bring this silly saga to an end.
It will at least force the dithering departers to face up to their responsibilities in a situation which they can no longer stall. They asked for it; the calendar was clear from the start; let them get on with it. Good bye and good luck.
But of course, punishing London will inevitably rebound on the 27, in commercial, economic and human terms.
Black holes and hornets' nests
A longer delay, somewhere between nine and 21 months, is another possibility.
But that's a real hornets' nest, since it would require the Brits to participate in the next European parliament, for which they have not organised elections.
And it would imply a hope for a change of heart, perhaps of government, across the Channel, maybe even a second referendum.
If the UK was allowed to send a Commissioner to Strasbourg, that individual would have a hand in continental budget decisions stretching to 2028, to say nothing of the possibility that the UK contingent could, as an act of blackmail, bring the European political process to a standstill.
Which brings us back to Theresa May's latest request for a short extension.
The European Commission has already said that such a deal would “involve serious judicial and political dangers”.
But at least it would enable the 27 to prepare for the Spring polls without the side show of cross channel chaos and continental warfare.