EU Said to Eye ‘Nuclear Option’ to Force May’s Hand on Exit

How Long Will Theresa May Wait to Trigger Article 50?
  • Britain could in theory see EU voting rights suspended
  • Member states divided on whether to consider harshest measures

Some in Europe want Theresa May to know their patience has its limits.

As the new British prime minister pushes back talks on leaving the European Union, officials on the continent have begun to float what they call “the nuclear option” to bring her to table: suspending Britain’s voting rights in EU institutions.

Several member states have started looking at whether that would be feasible by invoking Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, according to two European officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. That would mean arguing that the U.K. is no longer cooperating in good faith with the bloc in order to pressure May into ending the post-referendum limbo. The EU’s harshest sanctioning procedure has never been deployed before and three other officials in Brussels said it was too heavy-handed to even be considered.

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While May took office on Wednesday promising that “Brexit means Brexit,” her government is already sending out mixed signals on how long that might take. Trade Secretary Liam Fox is working on the basis that the two-year negotiating period could begin around the end of the year, but May on Friday said she won’t start the process of leaving the EU until she’s got Scotland’s backing. With Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon adamant that her country won’t be leaving at all, that pledge opens up the prospect of extensive delays.

European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel have acknowledged that the government in London will need time to envisage its future relationship with the EU. But with May installed sooner-than-expected at 10 Downing Street, European officials have called for her to accelerate the exit process. 

Fox’s Talks

EU governments are determined to prevent the U.K.’s self-inflicted political convulsions from overwhelming their other objectives, with lackluster growth, a surge in immigration and populist movements of their own to contend with.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on Monday urged the U.K. to start formal talks as soon as possible to reduce uncertainty about Britain’s status. “The sooner the negotiations start, the better,” Ayrault told reporters in Brussels.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Fox said he is lining up free-trade deals with about a dozen countries to be ready for an exit from the EU by Jan. 1, 2019. That would mean triggering Article 50 of the EU treaty by the end of the year.

Britain’s Card

The decision on when to start the EU’s exit mechanism is one of the few cards that British negotiators have to play as they try to secure access to the EU single market without surrendering on the immigration controls voters are demanding. If the clock runs down before they secure concessions from the other 27 nations, the U.K. will lose its EU trading privileges, with potentially serious consequences for manufacturers and the City of London as a financial center.

Chief Brexit negotiator David Davis said in an interview with the Mail on Sunday that he’s convinced the U.K. will be able to retain single-market access and tighten restrictions on migration, a combination of privileges that European leaders have explicitly ruled out.

Scotland’s future represents another obstacle for British negotiators. In an interview with Andrew Marr on the BBC, Sturgeon, the Scottish leader, said her government is “in a very strong position” when asked whether it would have a veto over the timing of exit talks. While May has vowed to keep the U.K. together, Sturgeon said she could call a second referendum on Scottish independence if she’s unable to protect her country’s relationship with the EU within the U.K.

EU Deterrent

EU governments would be happy to let the process drag on if talks were delayed because the mood among U.K. voters was shifting away from Brexit, said one of the officials who raised the prospect of Article 7. If it was seen as a negotiating tactic, that might provoke a response.

Even then, actually suspending Britain’s voting rights would be an aggressive move and its proponents might struggle to muster sufficient support. Twenty-three member states would have to agree that May was shirking her duty to cooperate in good faith with the rest of the bloc and Latvia, for example, doesn’t view the punitive approach as “reasonable,” Martin Dregeris, a spokesman for the Baltic nation’s foreign ministry, said in an e-mail Friday.

But life could still get uncomfortable for May with far less support. A demand from either the EU Commission, the Parliament or a third of member states would force the British leader to defend her tactics in front of EU leaders and then face a vote. That prospect in itself might be enough of a deterrent to further stalling.

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