Britain divides but doesn’t rule

PARIS — Britain has finally managed to split France and Germany over Brexit after nearly three years in which the two continental powers marched in lockstep. The trouble for the U.K. is that it is too busy fighting itself over the future it wants with the European Union to take advantage of the rift.

Cracks between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared last month, after British Prime Minister Theresa May requested a delay in the U.K.’s departure to break an impasse in parliament. At a special EU summit in Brussels, the French leader insisted any extension to the negotiating period be brief. The German chancellor, meanwhile, advocated giving Britain as long a breathing space as possible.

Officially, the disagreement was just about tactics. Paris wanted a short leash to force U.K. lawmakers to come to a decision and avoid the farce of British members in the new European Parliament having a say in July on the next Commission president, three years after their country voted to leave the EU.

Berlin argued that Britain might well need longer to accept the divorce settlement and should be given more time to rethink. Merkel said everything should be done to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Macron said no deal remained an option and insisted the U.K. should decide quickly.

The two leaders eventually compromised on a six-month reprieve until October 31, which would mean that the U.K. leaves before the new Commission takes office, barring a further delay.

British Prime Minister Theresa May requested a Brexit delay, which found Germany and France favoring different approaches | Michal Wachucik/Getty Images

Behind the official positions,

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