Which one is the Norway model? pic.twitter.com/hvogBzBq6E
— Tom Peck (@tompeck) April 1, 2019
Quite honestly, I’m not sure anything of lasting importance happened in Brexit-land yesterday, save the UK used up one of its very scarce days before the EU Council meeting on April 10 demonstrating the UK’s confusion and disarray.
So I am offering a few observations and treating today as an open thread. Theresa May has planned five hours of Cabinet meetings so expect leaks and declarations!
In the meantime, as you have almost certainly heard by now, Parliament again voted down all four of the motions that Speaker John Bercow allowed to be considered.
The one that came closet to being approved was Ken Clarke’s “customs union” handwave, which lost by only 3 votes. Oh, and Tory whip Nick Boles resigned the party due to its second refusal to support his soft Brexit plan. That’s because a “no deal” faction is at war with the EU friendly types. The Telegraph claims today that 14 of May’s ministers favor a crash out.
Not that Labour is doing much better on the party discipline front. Labour whipped in favor of “Common Market 2.0” (Boles’ plan) but only 185 members backed it and 25 even voted against it. The big reason for the split was that backing that plan meant repudiating Labour’s promise to halt the free movement of EU citizens.
It’s hard to see how EU leaders can watch what is happening in the UK and not conclude that the UK is a tar baby. That would seem to strengthen the case for not giving the UK a long extension, since the UK looks to be incapable of understanding what its options are, let alone choosing among them. How is another year of faffig about going to change anything? Some examples:
How does a super hard Brexit become a soft Brexit? The motion that may finally pass Wednesday is the customs union scheme. That’s being pitched to MPs as a soft Brexit even though it’s just about as hard as a crash-out. The fudge is that the customs union will be a component along with other things that will get to a soft Brexit. Why should EU pols have any confidence that Parliament can accept what those yet to be named pieces will be? They already rejected Theresa May’s deal, and for many, it was because it was too soft, as in still tied the UK too much to the EU. Why should the EU have any confidence that the UK is prepared to live with a non-unicorn Brexit?
How can the EU negotiate a deal with a party that won’t live up to even short term plain English agreements? Remember, Theresa May is still trying to get her Withdrawal Agreement passed even though the EU Council made clear the last day for that was March 29. Richard Smith sent along a short legal analysis by Prieskel & Co. on the messiness of re-setting the exit date if the UK needed to do that as of April 11 or 12. But its set-up was a reminder that Theresa May is poking a stick in the eye of the EU by trying again to get her Withdrawal Agreement passed…..and the press doesn’t even take notice. The exchange below also illustrates the lack of professionalism of the UK side, yet another obstacle to coming to an agreement:
As it happens the United Kingdom decided to seek an extension of the Article 50 period.
This request was made to the European Council on 20 March 2019 and the full letter is here. You will see the letter is wordy and rhetorical, and it gets to its point only at the end:
I am therefore writing to inform the European Council that the UK is seeking an extension to the Article 50 period under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union, including as applied by Article 106a of the Euratom Treaty, until 30 June 2019.
This, of course, was the only sentence that mattered, the rest was waffle.
The European Council, in turn, regarded this letter as little more than an invitation to treat. On 22 March 2019 the European Council made a reasoned and unanimous decision (here), which offered the UK two possible extensions:
In the event that the Withdrawal Agreement is approved by the House of Commons by 29 March 2019 at the latest, the period provided for in Article 50(3) TEU is extended until 22 May 2019.
In the event that the Withdrawal Agreement is not approved by the House of Commons by 29 March 2019 at the latest, the period provided for in Article 50(3) TEU is extended until 12 April 2019. In that event, the United Kingdom will indicate a way forward before 12 April 2019, for consideration by the European Council.
The United Kingdom accepted this offer the same day, in a letter far less wordy and political than before (here):
I refer to the draft European Council Decision taken in agreement with the United Kingdom extending the period under Article 50(3) TEU, as attached to this letter. I am writing to confirm the agreement of the Government of the United Kingdom to the extension of the period under Article 50(3) and to this decision.
Offer and acceptance; the extension took legal effect.
The point here is that the Government has demonstrated yet again that it isn’t agreement capable. Recall that it repudiated the backstop that it had committed to in the Joint Agreement of December 2017, and reversed itself only after the EU applied a lot of fudge (for which it has not been given credit). And as dreadful as May has been to deal with, it’s not clear there is anyone better in the offing…charitably assuming she leaves before the next general election, which is now set for 2022. Remember, she has committed to depart only if her Withdrawal Act is approved, as well as to not lead the party in the next GE. So I would not assume May is leaving any time soon.
What will the EU make of the Government’s relationship to Parliament? The Parliament has made it apparent it wants to have a lot of say over Brexit, even though, as reader David and others point out, treaties are clearly the purview of the Government. May could go to the EU Council next week and largely ignore Parliament’s wishes. But even worse, not only is the EU faced with the drill of having the Withdrawal Agreement ratified by EU27 member states plus the UK, the UK is now proposing to make that harder by requiring a “confirmatory referendum” on top of that. This would create an additional layer of Brexit uncertainty and delay if the UK were to insist on it as part of an extension process (which is why the EU, if it does grant an extension, will proceed as planned and let the UK worry about if and how a public vote figures in).
The bottom line is if the UK asks for an extension next week, which seems probable, the EU will determine what if any relief it will give. And the UK’s conduct keeps reminding the EU as to why it might not be so smart to be generous.