Brexit and The Politics of Extending Article 50

Kirsty Hughes questions whether the EU27 will give the UK a short or long extension of Article 50 at their upcoming emergency summit. She argues that the control of Brexit is once again more in the hands of the EU than in the ones of the UK Government or Westminster, with strict conditions to be set for any offer of extension. 

Brexit faces yet another ‘crunch’ week. The UK could tumble over a ‘no deal’ cliff edge this coming Friday, yet most assume that somehow the UK and EU will shift the deadline forward a bit more. But what decision a frustrated EU27 will take at their Brussels summit on Wednesday evening is, for now, unclear.

Groundhog day Brexit continues – the UK may yet leave with a deal (amended political declaration or not), without a deal, or stay in the EU – and when any of those outcomes will become the clear result is also uncertain.

Politics of Delay

The EU set conditions at their 21/22 March summit which the UK has failed to comply with. The Commons did not pass the Withdrawal Agreement by the 29th March nor, in requesting a further delay (as May did on Friday), did the prime minister ‘indicate a way forward’ – apart from an inchoate mention of cross-party talks, an intention to prepare for European Parliament elections (while hoping not to take part in them) and an idea of the Commons voting, somehow in a binding way, on options.

Yvette Cooper’s bill may yet pass on Monday or Tuesday and perhaps give parliament more control over any extension request. But with the summit on Wednesday, and May’s letter having gone in, any change in the request will certainly be last minute – and the EU may not be impressed unless a big majority in the Commons supports a different extension (presumably longer) than that put forward by May.

The EU’s discussion amongst the 27 leaders on 21/22 March was the first time they had considered extending Article 50 at a summit. With May’s presentation leaving them exasperated (not for the first time), the summit conclusions set out the two-part extension offer of 29th March or 12th April choices. Where they may go next on Wednesday evening is unclear.

Donald Tusk has now established himself as the highest profile supporter of remain supporters in the UK – and of giving the UK a chance still to change its mind on leaving the EU. His ‘flextension’ proposal last week suggested giving the UK up to a year to sort out a way ahead – but with the extension ending sooner if the UK passed the Withdrawal Agreement and left the EU.

But others are less open to such flexibility. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Ireland last week, emphasising her opposition to no deal. Merkel – and Leo Varadkar – might be sympathetic to the UK having a longer delay for an election and/or a people’s vote and the UK eventually remaining. But in the absence, still, of any clear political lead on that at Westminster, time is running out.

And while Merkel is seen as more flexible than Emmanuel Macron on a further Article 50 delay, it’s not impossible that they coalesce around a new effort to get the Commons to choose between May’s deal and no deal. Macron, backed by Spain and Belgium, has been making tougher noises including on a no deal Brexit and could give short-shrift to Tusk’s flextension idea – seeing it as too generous and not imposing tough enough conditions (beyond participation in the European Parliament elections).

European Parliament Elections Impacts in Different Ways

Ironically, it may yet be the European Parliament elections that come to the UK’s aid. A no deal Brexit on Friday 12th April, or a couple of weeks later (allowing both sides to prepare a little more), would risk exploding into European Parliament election campaigning across the EU. Most of the EU’s leaders are concerned to hold back any surge of the populist far-right (apart from those who are part of that push). A chaotic no deal Brexit in the midst of campaigning would have an unpredictable effect on opinion across the EU. But with damaging impacts likely in several EU countries (even if not as bad as in the UK), it would not be a welcome intrusion into the elections.

And, assuming the UK, amidst no deal chaos, would be rapidly back in Brussels trying to negotiate some or any deal or temporary palliatives, that in itself would be a considerable distraction to the EU’s leaders. So while the EU27 may not want to let the UK off the hook, they really need Brexit to go on the backburner, unless Westminster were to suddenly vote for a deal or for a people’s vote (or perhaps a general election).

But, of course, the European Parliament elections are also weighing in another way on the EU’s decisions on Brexit and the UK, since the UK needs to participate in those elections to avoid potentially undermining the legal status of the new parliament. Beyond that, political concerns about the UK – if still in the EU – getting in the way of decisions on appointing the new presidents of the Commission and European Council are also pressing.

Crunch Extension Choices

What this may boil down to is firstly whether the EU27 offer the UK a short extension of a few weeks or a longer one, a la Tusk, of a year, and what conditions the EU will impose. Secondly, a critical question will be, given the UK’s continued failure to decide what it wants, whether the EU leaves open the chance for the UK to decide, in the coming days and weeks, it does want a longer extension to hold another referendum. If the EU chose to play really hard ball, it might offer a short, one-off extension i.e. a final choice between the Withdrawal Agreement and no deal. But if they went down this path, the UK would still need to take part in European Parliament elections, given that the EU may not want the risk of a no deal crashing out in the midst of those elections.

The challenge to the UK remains what it has been for months now: either to agree the deal that is on the table (whatever the status of the political declaration) or to have a people’s vote (or even revoke Article 50). The time left to make that choice (or not) is now up to the EU. The political failures of Brexit have been so great that, even if Westminster did push for a general election, to hold one without crashing out under no deal would require the EU’s agreement.

The May-Corbyn talks may yet pull a customs union rabbit out of a hat – even though both have now spent months pretending there isn’t an effectively permanent customs union already in the backstop/Withdrawal Agreement. If they come to an unlikely deal, they could offer the Commons to vote on a motion for a ‘confirmatory’ referendum on that – though whether Labour would even insist ‘remain’ was on the ballot is unclear, and both could yet play parliamentary games as to how such a motion is put (hoping for it to be defeated).

Wednesday’s summit is a genuine crunch moment in Brexit. And where the EU’s leaders may end up is uncertain. It’s in their interests that the UK starts to recover from its destabilising political implosion. But the EU’s leaders have their own interests – and perhaps little idea how to help stabilise the UK at this point.

They will be concerned with their own domestic and European politics of the European elections, with stopping Brexit continuing to absorb so much time (including emergency summits), and with not letting the UK disrupt upcoming EU strategies, policies and decisions. They may push back a no deal Brexit for now. But a long extension, that might at least give the UK the time to admit the depth of its national crisis, is not guaranteed and won’t be unconditional if it is offered. Even so, in terms of putting the UK and Brexit on the backburner, a long extension is arguably more in the EU’s interests than a sequence of nearer-term deadlines.

Brexit or no Brexit: the UK government and parliament still can’t or won’t decide. With Article 50’s two year time limit over, the unfolding crisis now depends on EU decisions and demands. Brexit has left the UK in crisis, humiliated and not in control. The EU will decide what happens next.

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations and member of the Advisory board of the UCL European Institute.

This post was originally published by the Scottish Centre for European Relations (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

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