They couldn’t resist the briefest of smiles.
The leaders from Britain’s 27 former EU partners were arriving in Brussels on Thursday for what is essentially an EU team meeting when Liz Truss bombed out as prime minister.
The potential for schadenfreude was rife. Truss would have been at this meeting only a few years earlier, likely frustrating her colleagues with a British brand of conservative Euroskepticism.
Now, she wasn’t their problem anymore (most of the time) — Brexit had taken care of that. They could just watch it all unfold from a safe distance (relatively speaking), ensconced across the English Channel.
“I hope I can recall how many British PMs I’ve survived,” quipped Luxembourgish Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who’s been in power a decade.
“I look forward to who my new colleague will be — I think it will be number five,” mused Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who has lasted over a decade.
Inevitably, there was the occasional smile that crept onto leaders’ faces, even as they tried to stick to the diplomatic bromides typically reserved for these moments.
“I’m not going to comment on that — I will leave that to you,” Rutte offered with a knowing look when reporters tried to engage him on what the Truss resignation said about the U.K.’s political situation.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was similarly brisk.
“Today is the European Council and that’s the topic I’m commenting on,” she said with a tactful smile before departing the gaggle of reporters.
Remarkably, some of the EU leaders may have learned of Truss’s departure for the first time from the wall of reporters that greeted them at the entrance to the European Council building. Journalists had just gathered, laden with microphones and cameras, when phones began to light up: Truss had finally bowed to the inevitable.
Some leaders were lucky, getting in the door before the bombshell news. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz happily chatted about the latest energy discussions, escaping any questions about Truss’s abbreviated, 44-day stint.
Once the news broke, however, Scholz’s economy ministry jumped right into the Twitter fray as users stumbled over each other to crack wise. In a rapidly deleted tweet, the ministry’s account responded to the BBC’s breaking news alert about Truss with a YouTube clip of the Public Enemy song, “Can’t Truss It.”
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez also slipped in the door before the dramatic announcement, but he didn’t shy away from pronouncing the death of Britain’s post-Brexit economic policies.
“I think it’s the end of an approach,” he said, “which in my opinion was an old-fashioned approach of how to respond to this economic crisis, which is lowering all taxes and cutting the welfare state.”
And with Spain headed for the polls in late 2023, Sánchez spun the issue into a campaign message for the home audience.
“We need to reinforce our welfare state and make equitable the fiscal response among the population to this crisis,” he said.
EU leaders, of course, can’t simply watch Truss spiral from the sidelines.
Despite the Brexit divorce, the U.K. is still intertwined with the European Continent. The economies are closely linked. They are partners in helping Ukraine fight Russian invaders. They are promoters of democratic values. Brits live throughout Europe. The U.K. is full of EU citizens.
So there was understandable — and genuine — concern in the voices of numerous EU leaders.
French President Emmanuel Macron — who only recently smoothed things over with Truss after a cross-Channel spat — said it was important that Britain found “political stability” as soon as possible, citing the tempestuous geopolitical climate and the war in Ukraine.
“That is all I wish,” he said, with a tone reflecting the appreciation in Europe that what happens in Britain matters.
Irish leader Micheál Martin put himself in Truss’ shoes for a moment.
“On a personal level, I sympathize with her, I think it’s been a very difficult time for the British prime minister,” Martin said. He preached the importance of stability in the U.K. and expressed a desire to have a successor “selected as quickly as possible.”
Thankfully for the EU leaders, the news that ex-U.K. leader Boris Johnson — the EU’s Brexiteer foil — may be staging a comeback had not emerged as they entered the room. Perhaps it will serve as good fodder for after-dinner gossip if their tense talks over lowering energy prices get too heated.
While the leadership turnover is the latest chapter in Britain’s seemingly never-ending political soap opera, one constant remains: the Northern Ireland protocol, a post-Brexit trading arrangement governing trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The reality is that Brussels, and particularly EU Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, will now have to prepare to deal with yet another British prime minister on the issue — the third one this year.
Barbara Moens contributed reporting.