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Europe is losing patience with Theresa May's Brexit chaos

[BERLIN] Last Friday in Hamburg, members of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party took time out from their annual convention for drinks with a handful of British Conservative lawmakers who were there as observers.

The mood was somber as the Christian Democrats helped "the last of the rational ones" among their UK colleagues take leave of Europe, according to Elmar Brok, a veteran German member of the European Parliament. "It's one big tragedy," said Brok, who attests that tears were shed during the evening's wake for Brexit Britain.

Prime Minister Theresa May faces a vote of confidence in her leadership on Wednesday with Parliament riven over her Brexit deal, but the countdown continues regardless to March 29 - the date the divorce takes effect. The UK's imminent departure from the European Union is a source of regret from Brussels to Berlin, matched by feelings of bemusement, and annoyance, that it's happening at all.

"Brexit in chaos," ran Tuesday's front-page headline in Italy's Corriere della Sera after Mrs May postponed the parliamentary vote on the withdrawal deal. "May in desperation," said Spain's El Mundo. "Scolded. Laughed at. Done with governing?" was Dutch newspaper Volkskrant's take.

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The prime minister's whirlwind tour of European capitals in a last-ditch bid to wring more concessions adds to the bemusement. EU leaders preparing to meet for the last summit of the year on Thursday have made it abundantly clear the deal negotiated by Michel Barnier will not be unpicked. The danger for the UK is that, deal or no deal, the damage to Britain's international reputation is done.

"The dismal Brexit drama refuses to end," wrote Der Spiegel's deputy foreign editor, Mathieu von Rohr. The vote now looks likely for January, but with the EU refusing to negotiate afresh, "it's unclear what should change by then," he said. "British politics has become alarmingly chaotic - and this chaos can infect all Europe."

EU leaders have consistently said they regret the UK decision but that life outside the bloc cannot be as cosy and preferential as inside. And while Merkel is not unsympathetic to Mrs May's plight, the chancellor made her views on Brexit protocol clear to the prime minister back in July 2016. The British premier travelled to Berlin shortly after assuming office, only to be politely told that no bilateral negotiations would take place, "formally or informally".

Fast forward, and Britain's position is even more confused than ever. Amid the uncertainty, workers are voting with their feet: Financial companies are relocating jobs to Europe, and Britain's economy is 0.7 per cent smaller than it would have been without the focus on Brexit, according to Bloomberg economists Dan Hanson and Jamie Murray.

The Bank of England was panned for outlining a scenario for a no-deal Brexit that included a plunge in property prices of almost a third and the pound losing a quarter of its value within a year. And yet Mrs May warned on Monday that the odds of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal had risen.

Marriages are meanwhile reportedly breaking up over Brexit, EU nationals in the UK are being given conflicting signals about their future status, and British citizens are taking up dual nationality in record numbers. Northern Ireland and Scotland - where a majority voted to stay - remain volatile with the potential to plunge the UK into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

The worry for Europe is that some of the anti-EU sentiment underpinning the initial British vote to leave is showing up in other nations. But that is not enough for countries to step in now and offer Mrs May substantially different terms; if anything, it acts as a counterweight to ensure they hold firm.

How did we get to this point? There are as many answers as possible Brexit outcomes: Decades of tabloid smears directed at the EU; the gulf between an urban elite and life in Britain's hard-pressed regions; a surge in immigration after the Blair government's decision to allow citizens of the 10 mainly eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 to work in Britain. A desire among voters to take back control over lawmaking from distant politicians in Brussels.

‘Wrong question'

Then there was David Cameron's gamble that a referendum on Britain's EU membership would resolve his internal Conservative Party dilemma on Europe, a device he had used successfully - just - to put Scotland's quest for independence to the test in 2014.

According to Matt Qvortrup, a professor of comparative European politics at Coventry University who has written widely on referendums, "Brexit was an answer to the wrong question." Rather than being solely about the EU, it was a test of voter trust in politicians more generally, and so provided "an opportunity to give them a kicking".

Mrs May and her rotating cabinet door of ministers have struggled to give meaning to the referendum result in the thick of "a misunderstanding that people deliberately don't want to address, which to quote Vladimir Putin, is that Britain is now a small island off Europe," said Prof Qvortrup. "Britannia does not quite rule the waves any more, but that's the perception."

Many Germans still feel close to the UK for all that. The countries share a northern sensibility on fiscal and industrial matters that makes them more natural partners than the likes of Spain or Italy, or even France. Mrs May's Conservatives and Merkel's Christian Democrats were sister parties - until Mr Cameron pulled the Tories out of their common EU umbrella group, the European People's Party.

Just ask David McAllister, who served as prime minister of Lower Saxony from 2010 to 2013, the German state with the greatest affinity for all things British. It is the source of the Saxon in Anglo-Saxon; the region that was the main base for Britain's post-World War II occupation forces; and is the ancestral Hanoverian homeland of the British Royal family.

"It's a historic mistake," said Mr McAllister, the son of a German mother and a Scot attached to the British military, who holds dual German-British nationality. "What we have to make clear to the British is there's no appetite at all to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement. That's something a lot of British colleagues from the House of Commons still aren't believing."

Britain is "making itself small," said Mr McAllister, who now heads the EU Parliament's foreign affairs committee. "It's one of the few decisions in my political life which actually makes me really sad."

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