Tuesday’s whopping defeat for the prime minister’s Brexit deal has left Theresa May and her government in a state of disarray. While ministers are doing their best to sound convincing about the need to take a consensual approach with fellow parliamentarians, seeking options that can command majority support in the Commons, it all sounds like so much wishful thinking.
The simple truth is that parliament is resolutely divided when it comes to Brexit – and not only on party lines. The chances of agreement on a new course of action appear limited at best. No wonder that the prospects of Article 50 being delayed, and of a Final Say referendum, become brighter by the day.
But if the impasse in Westminster is bad for the government and for British politics (and the British public), then it is a problem too for the European Union.
At the most obvious level, the remaining members of the EU favour an orderly Brexit in order to avoid disruption to Europe’s economy; the ongoing uncertainty is bad for businesses. What’s more, its negotiators will doubtless feel sore that two years of work has so far come to nothing.
But there is an existential issue too, which is that the longer the UK’s withdrawal saga goes on without a decisive conclusion, the more it appears that the EU is – just as its opponents have always claimed – effectively a club you cannot leave; the Hotel California of international institutions.
This matters because the primary criticism of the EU by those suspicious of it, is that it ultimately overrides the rights of its sovereign members.
Even if the reality of the Brexit situation is that the deal has been stymied at the UK end, it is not difficult to see how anti-EU voices will offer an alternative presentation of events.
If we arrive at a second referendum, those arguing for a no-deal departure will say that the negotiations so far demonstrate that the EU is not willing to offer the UK a fair deal; and indeed will do all it can to make a deal impossible.
To Eurosceptic voices elsewhere in Europe (many of which are associated with the resurgent nationalism we have seen in recent years), the inability of Britain to extricate itself from the EU will similarly be used further to stoke anti-EU sentiment.
On Tuesday night, EU leaders and officials presented a largely united face, suggesting there was no room to reopen negotiations and that the ball was firmly in the UK’s court. But Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, went a little further, tweeting: “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?” In other words, the only option left is to cancel Brexit.
On the face of it, Tusk’s analysis is perfectly reasonable – impossible to fault in fact.
Yet to tweet such a comment when British politics and society is so divided on the issue smacks of the kind of arrogance that EU critics detest.
Even many who wish the 2016 referendum had gone the other way (and who would vote to Remain again in the event of a Final Say being granted) might think it would be better if Tusk kept his remarks to himself.
It stands to reason that the European Union would want to make it hard for Britain to end its membership. If life looks rosier on the outside than in, why would others not follow? But paradoxically, it will only give succour to EU sceptics if it gives the impression (wittingly, fairly or otherwise) that members who decide to leave the club will either be prevented from, or punished for doing so.