It is likely of little comfort to those of you in the Uk who are dreading the outcome of this week’s European Council meetings. As we’ll discuss, the apparent best outcome the UK can hope for, in terms of the near-term impact on ordinary citizens, that of a one-year extension, is virtually certain to solve nothing. And you can fuggedaboud May’s proposal to Donald Tusk last week, of an extension to June 30.
As many have said, the way Brexit came about and has been prosecuted is a tragedy, not just for the UK but for Europe, and for the naive idea that economic integration would be a force for peace. Narrowly, it was: Europe has been free of war since the World War II conflagration. But as we are now seeing, tighter ties have led to the growth of international firms, and with their rise, inequality in advanced economies has also risen sharply. One can go through a long list of reasons, not all of which can be linked to more globalization, but many can. And perhaps more important, the rise of a global elite meant that not enough well placed people cared about curbing the rise in inequality; it’s obvious virtually all of them greatly enjoy it. Nevertheless, national economies can blunt inequality through taxing and spending policies (witness Japan, which still has the best social indicators in the world despite having an aging population and falling relative per capita income).
Since the EU will makes its big decision on April 10 and 11, it’s not clear how much benefit there is in tracking the details of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn trying to come to an understanding. As Richard North describes long form, the ideas under discussion are so confused as to not map on to the benefits they hope to achieve, most importantly, “frictionless trade”. This tweet gives a brief take:
The final, inevitable knot in which @theresa_may has tied herself.
— Peter Foster (@pmdfoster) April 7, 2019
Nevertheless, May attempted to put lipstick on the pig of her Brexit mess:
— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) April 7, 2019
Chris Grey highlighted one important issue: that May proposed her non-starter of an extension to June 30 as a way to slip Parliament’s leash:
The Cooper Bill – proposed by Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who has emerged as one of the parliamentary stars of Brexit – requires the Prime Minister, within a day of it passing, to seek MPs’ approval to apply to the EU for an extension to the Article 50 period. The length of extension proposed would be of the Prime Minister’s choosing, but could be amended by MPs. Although Theresa May had already said she would be applying for an extension, the difference is that under this legislation parliament would control the application and its period.
The Bill was passed by the Commons on third reading by, again, just one vote. The following day it went to the House of Lords where it was subject to extensive and shameless filibustering from Brexiter peers. It is ironic to recall that the wrecking tactics of the unelected House of Lords were cited by Theresa May as one reason for calling her ill-fated snap election in 2017.
It could only delay matters until Monday, but that delay mattered because in the meantime Theresa May has submitted her request for an extension – until 30 June. This seems to be an attempt to avoid being subject to the putative Cooper Act, perhaps simply for the symbolic reason of wanting it to seem to be the government rather parliament is driving events. That would be a fairly typical piece of May game-playing. I am not clear what, if anything, now happens when the Bill is passed (or, even, whether it will now be pulled). But on the substantive issue of extension and its length the decision rests with the EU in any case.
It is well over my pay grade to determine whether this maneuver was May being May, or whether it was done with the intent of putting her extension request outside Cooper’s bill, and thus at least avoiding the possibility that it could trigger an accidental crash out (by forcing May to come back to Parliament for approval of a change in the extension, which would have decent odds of not being able to be executed by the end of April 12).
But back to question of what the EU will propose, assuming that Leo Varadkar is correct when he says that the EU is unlikely to deny a delay to Brexit. Donald Tusk has been pushing for a one-year extension, and the press in the past reported that the EU was considering a nine-month extension. If so, the EU either badly misapprehends what is happening in the UK, or simply doesn’t know what to do, save it does not want to be able to be painted as kicking the UK out of the EU, even though the EU has already done more than it was obligated to do by granting any relief whatsoever.
One out would be if May fails to authorize participation in European Parliament elections (Clive has given the matter a look and it’s not at all clear whether the Government can approve them on its own or whether Parliament must bless them). This is a red line for the EU for legal reasons: the legitimacy of the entire incoming Parliament could be called into question, meaning the validity of any acts, if the UK were still in the EU but not represented). This would seem to be the only clean hands way for the EU to deny an extension (assuming that there are more nations than France so inclined but still reluctant to play the heavy).
It is hard to see how anything changes in the UK with respect to Brexit in a year. Perhaps the EU is hoping, as happened with other referendums, that the first result will be reversed. But even a year isn’t enough runway. While a referendum that ran like clockwork could be completed in 24 weeks, it’s inconceivable that one in the UK would go quickly, if nothing else due to scheming by Ultras.
But the bigger impediment is it is hard to think of how to organize a one-round referendum that would produce results that have legitimacy. The Ultras would howl at no-deal not being an option, and even now, roughly 25% of UK voters still favor no deal. If you have three options, no deal, May’s deal or an improved version of that, and Remain, the odds are decent that no option gets a majority. And that’s before you get to the fact that a second referendum was nixed by Parliament last week and the Government remains opposed to one.
Similarly, there’ no obvious path to a general election. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, it would take a vote of no confidence or a vote of 2/3 in the House. Right now, Labour is ahead in the polls, making it unlikely that the Tories and the DUP will be the turkeys that voted for Thanksgiving. From Politico’s morning European newsletter:
EXCLUSIVE POLL: As the U.K.’s Conservatives struggle to deliver Brexit and with a general election now looking within the realm of possibility, an exclusive poll for POLITICO suggests voters have lost trust in the party on core issues. In swing seats across the country, the Tories trail Labour on the central issues people most care about, a new POLITICO-Hanbury tracker poll found.
Generally unhappy: There is deep discontent with the two main parties, which are both seen as out of touch and incompetent. Yet it is the Tories who now trail overall on the core issues ranked as the most important by the public — Brexit, crime, housing and health.
Big but: Despite the negative view of the party and its handling of Brexit, Theresa May is still seen as the stronger leader compared to her opposition counterpart Jeremy Corbyn, who, the survey suggests, is the significant block to Labour pulling away in the polls.
And that’s before considering that Labour has no workable idea about what to do about Brexit, and the Tory party could splinter, to the advantage of UKIP. Recall how much influence UKIP had despite winning effectively no seats in Parliament. What would a resurgent UKIP, running on the theme of “betrayal” do to sorting out Brexit and UK politics generally?
The shorter version, from the EU’s vantage: the Brexit negotiations were an exercise in Groundhog Day, with the UK refusing to hear the word “no” and repeatedly coming back with at best mildly reformulated versions of the same demand. UK pols and the press are still as out to lunch about basic issues regarding possible future arrangements with the EU as they were three years ago. Correctly, as a condition of getting an extension, EU leaders had demanded the UK present a path by which it could arrive at a different answer than its current impasse. Giving the UK another year looks likely to produce another year of unproductive melodrama. And businesses on the whole seem to think that having crash out risk still very much in the picture is at least as costly as having it take place now by virtue of having to defer investments and other important decisions and spend resources more than once on contingency planning.
Pretty much everyone I meet says they want all the Brexit uncertainty to end, one way or another.
But that is now impossible: even agreement – which seems remote – on some version of the PM’s deal to take us out of the EU would only be a beginning of a sort, not an end, with so much left to decide on what kind of future relationship we need and deserve with the EU.
And if there is no backing from MPs for the Withdrawal Agreement that is the divorce from the EU, then we are into a series of choices whose consequences would be to lead to various forms of national and international fission.
Every option, from a no-deal Brexit to a referendum, or even revocation of the decision to leave, leads to some combination of UK nations (England versus Northern Ireland and Scotland) or social groups (to simplify, nationalist low-income Brexiters versus internationalist wealthier Remainers) shouting treachery and betrayal.
There is no Brexit peace to be had. For many years. Or at least none I can see.
And remember how Richard North had pointed out that May had said that the only way to Brexit was via her Withdrawal Agreement? That apparently was not posturing. Again from Peston:
The greatest fear of all for the Macrons of the EU is that a new UK prime minister – which there will certainly be within the coming year – would use the delay to rip up the Withdrawal Agreement, or the divorce settlement, which is seen within the EU as the single achievement of Brexit talks to date.
Tory leadership hopefuls Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab have more-or-less pledged to do just that.
The EU27 and Tusk are agonising about how to pre-empt and prevent that. It won’t be easy.
So it would be dangerous and naive to assume the EU will roll over and offer the long extension which Tusk moots.
The Financial Times gives details in Macron heads calls to impose tough conditions on Brexit delay:
Mr Macron, increasingly frustrated by the deadlock in Britain, wants guarantees that the UK will not use its continuing presence as a departing member of the EU to disrupt the bloc’s business, including its multiyear budget….
As part of any extension of the exit process, European capitals are debating a “code of conduct” which would flesh out Mrs May’s pledge to abide by the principle of “sincere co-operation” to avoid undermining the bloc while the UK remains a member state.
“We can’t treat a member state that’s leaving in the same way as one that is there forever,” said a senior French official.
Paris is seeking legally binding assurances from the UK that it would not tip the balance in any sensitive EU decisions over coming months.
In practice this would mean Britain abstaining in any vote on selecting a new European Commission president, on deciding the long-term EU budget, or in legislative negotiations where the UK could block progress
But one EU official said that setting genuinely binding constraints on the UK would be “extremely difficult”, since no such decision could curtail the UK’s treaty rights as a member state.
It’s hard to see how the EU could get adequate commitments from the UK in the short April 10 to April 12 time period, particularly when the UK demonstrated it was not agreement capable. May first reneging on the settled Withdrawal Agreement due to the backstop, and now the tug of war between an incompetent and divided Government and an incompetent and divided Parliament for control.
So even if the EU takes what would appear to be the easy path and gives the UK a long extension, the result will be more strife, in the UK and between the UK and the EU. Put it another way: protracting the process won’t make it any nicer.