The EU Council did what no one expected, which was to come up with a compromise on the UK’s request for a Brexit extension which was different than the UK’s proposal and any of the pre-meeting rumors about the EU’s position. Although we’ll likely learn more about how this was arrived at, superficially, it looks like it resulted from heated arguments between Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, as well as allowing for the point of view of Donald Tusk (and whatever other national leaders who hold similar views) that the UK should have the opportunity to have a long extension if it can come up with a credible Brexit plan.
Specifically, as most readers likely know, the EU has agreed to extend the departure date to May 22 if Theresa May succeeds in getting her Brexit deal approved by Parliament next week, to enough time to pass necessary legislation if she succeeds. If she fails, the UK can still seek a long extension by April 12 if it presents a plausible plan for getting to a different type of Brexit:
NEW: updated draft conclusions: 'EUCO agrees to an extension to 22 May, provided WA is approved by the HoC next week. If the WA is not approved by the HoC next week, EUCO agrees to an extension until 12 April, expects UK to indicate a way forward for the consideration of EUCO'
— Alberto Nardelli (@AlbertoNardelli) March 21, 2019
Later reports explained that if the UK seeks a longer extension, it has to commit to participating in European Parliament elections (April 12 is the last day it can make that decision).
This solution may seem to be a well-balanced or even elegant compromise, but it does have the risk of being the prototypical horse designed by a committee winding up being a camel.1 For starters, the EU gave the UK more than it asked for, and some of the motives for doing so looked iffy. The press reported that Merkel argued that the EU should not go down in history as pushing the UK out. This was the Financial Times’ account:
The French president emerged as the head of a hardline group of EU leaders arguing that Brussels should rule out any extended delay of Britain’s exit date unless London fundamentally rethinks its Brexit policy.
But on Thursday he was challenged by Angela Merkel, German chancellor, who said the union had to do whatever it could to avoid a hard Brexit. The two leaders clashed at a private meeting, which “nearly” erupted into a row, according to one EU diplomat. Ms Merkel told her French counterpart they would be judged harshly by history if they allowed a chaotic fracture with Britain to occur.
Needless to say, that’s a peculiar construction when it’s the UK that decided to leave and then has been unable to manage deadlines it created by sending in an Article 50 notice.
Even though many UK businesses were in freakout mode upon getting the memo that Brexit really might happen next week, the flip side, as Macron and others have stressed, many have prepared for a March 29 event, and pushing the drop dead date to June 30 (May’s original request) would requires businesses to go through all that preparation a second time. Tweets during the day suggested Macron was pushing for May 7, not May 22, presumably to somewhat lessen business uncertainty.
As Clive said by e-mail:
Even my mother in law’s cat knows the Withdrawal Agreement ain’t gonna pass in the next week as-is. If the EU27 were serious, they’d be saying “a limited technical extension on condition the Meaningful Vote is passed and there will be no extension if it isn’t passed, no matter what, and it will then be a No Deal Brexit”. Anything else is a prelude to Hoping Something Turns Up.
However, the part that concerns me is giving the UK an opportunity to seek a long extension. It’s one thing if the EU were to stick to its resolve before this summit of requiring the UK to present a credible plan as to how it will purse a different sort of Brexit.
The problem is that when various EU officials started mentioning a possible extension, they offered justifications like “to hold a second referendum” or to have general elections. These measures don’t assure that a deeply divided Britain will reach a consensus on Brexit. For instance, how do you formulate meaningful referendum options? It’s almost certain a second referendum would not offer binary choices. What happens, if say, Remain won but by a plurality, not a majority? What kind of legitimacy would that have? And that approach also pushes the UK in the further direction of being a direct democracy as opposed to a Parliamentary democracy, when the experience of California suggests that running a large state with the regular use of referendums hasn’t been such a hot idea.
There are at least two big risks with the UK pursuing a long extension on nebulous grounds like “a second referendum” or a general election, which the EU would find difficult to reject given prior statements by its officials. And those would be risks not just for the EU but the UK.
Lack of leadership. It’s become fashionable to bash Theresa May, and let’s face it, she is terribly ill suited to her role.
EU official says that when leaders asked May what she was going to do if her deal was voted down, she would only reply that she was following her 'Plan A' of getting it through. It was then they decided 'she didn't have a plan so they needed to come up with one for her'.
— Nick Gutteridge (@nick_gutteridge) March 21, 2019
However, she’s still standing because no one all that much better has shown up. Yes, anybody but May would annoy her EU counterparts less. But the entire UK leadership class has been unwilling to hear the EU saying in every way possible, “No means no” on the UK’s desire not to have to adhere to Single Market requirements yet still have all the bennies.
Who exactly could lead the UK to a better Brexit? I can’t come up with anyone in either major party. Phil Hammond might have been a contender but he may have tainted himself by being such a dogged May supporter. Corbyn has shown himself to have no grasp for the issues, and worse, no concern that he’s sputtered nonsense.
And between now and April 12, there is no getting rid of May without creating a leadership vacuum. As Clive has pointed out, even if May were to resign, unless the Tories had pre-aggeed on her replacement, a leadership contest would take a bare minimum of a fortnight. And if there were a ready alternative in the Conservatives for May, she would have been gone long ago.
Similarly, a vote of no confidence would also come close to assuring a no deal exit. Parliament has 14 calendar days in which it can reverse itself and vote the Government back in; otherwise, the election process starts and that takes 25 business days. A no-confidence vote is the Ultras best hope for jamming the controls and assuring a no deal….but how many would be willing to get themselves deselected to try, particularly since Labour might realize that they’ve laid a trap?
Lack of comprehension. Over 1000 days past the vote and UK pundits and pols are still clueless. Recall how in the last couple of months, both our posts and reader commentors have lamented how many unicorns are still alive and kicking. Just one of many: Corbyn and the press are depicting a “customs union” as a magic solution when it is not at all the same as being in the internal market and therefore does not end the need for hard borders or solve the Irish border problem. And don’t get me started on “Norway”.
Does the EU have the stomach for the possibility of years more of what it went through with May, with different personalities with new fantasies from which they need to be weaned? How long can the EU leadership take this much brain damage, consumption of resources, and uncertainty?
Now it is possible that a reconsideration of Brexit would eventually lead to the revocation of Article 50. And it is still remotely possible that could happen after May’s Meaningful Vote fails again (charitably assuming Speaker Bercow reverses himself and lets the House have at it). But that isn’t costless. The hard core Leave faction would feel betrayed and would be disruptive. And would the UK return to being a resentful and divisive member of the EU?
For what it’s worth, Richard North views the EU’s offer to the UK of presenting a “way forward” to cinch a long extension as a face-saving gesture. I’m not so sure, but I may also be over-estimating the odds of the UK making a last-ditch effort to kick Brexit into the long grass. The pink paper reports that trade union and business lobbyists are on the same page, jointly petitioning May to Do Something to prevent a “national emergency”. Where have they been for the last year?
Similarly, Tusk made the rounds in Europe to sell the idea before the summit, plus ideas that make their way into documents often assume a life of their own.
Presumably we’ll have answers in a few weeks. But we may simply be left with different questions.
1 This is a bit unfair to camels, since they are sturdier and less flighty than horses.