Brexit may finally have left Brussels flummoxed.
EU27 officials have long expressed frustration and dismay over machinations in London, and insisted that they are preparing for every eventuality, including the possibility of a chaotic no-deal, crashout scenario.
But on Thursday Commission officials acknowledged they were not quite prepared for the predicament they now find themselves in — with Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen and her team hoping to take office on December 1 but the U.K. refusing to put forward a nominee for commissioner, despite having agreed to do so as part of the deal that postponed the Brexit deadline to January 31.
Dana Spinant, a spokeswoman for the new Commission, insisted that lawyers are working to find a solution, but said the EU is not prepared to announce its next steps despite more than two weeks of speculation that just such a scenario could emerge.
“This is about the status of a process, which is unprecedented legally,” Spinant said at the Commission’s daily news conference where she faced a barrage of questions about the U.K.’s position.
Spinant, and the Commission’s current chief spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, insisted that the EU’s goal is still to install von der Leyen and her team on December 1, and they noted that the U.K. has made clear it does not want to be responsible for delaying the process.
On Wednesday night, the U.K.’s ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, sent a letter stating that London would not put forward a nominee until after the U.K. election on December 12. He cited Cabinet Office guidance against making international appointments, including to the EU institutions, during the pre-election period.
While the Commission in theory could function without a British commissioner, and indeed has worked in the past without every EU country having a representative in the College, London’s failure to send a nominee has created an array of unpalatable choices.
Delaying the start of the new Commission would surrender the EU’s operations to the Brexit mess, something EU27 leaders have made clear they find utterly unacceptable.
Starting without a British commissioner, however, would also be a concession, as some 60 million still-EU citizens would not have their perspective represented in the new College.
And even if London put forward a nominee, allowing a short-term appointment (presuming the U.K. leaves the EU by January 31) would entail financial costs, including pension expenses, for a commissioner who would do little or no work.
Current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker blocked some short-term replacements precisely because of these costs (Estonia remains without a commissioner for this reason).
In any case, officials have said that to begin the new Commission without a U.K. commissioner some action would be required on the EU’s part, in order to avoid potential legal challenges to the new Commission’s legitimacy.
The current practice of having each of the 28 EU members put forward a Commission nominee was established in a legal decision by the European Council, and some officials have suggested that the Council would need to act to change it.
At Thursday’s news conference, Commission officials tried to straddle between insisting that EU lawyers are already on the case, and that the Commission would not be delayed, while also deflecting questions about how long it would take to reach a conclusion, or what legal options might be available.
“As soon as we have completed our analysis we are going to announce to you the next steps to take,” Spinant said.
Although Spinant initially said that after receiving Barrow’s letter the EU had just “a few hours to contemplate” the U.K. position, she added: “It doesn’t mean the thinking starts today.”
Andreeva added, “1st December remains the objective, we are looking into how we are getting there.”
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