Brussels can’t help but extend the Brexit horror show
The U.K. will almost certainly get another Brexit extension — but don’t ask the EU to admit it.
In the meantime, officials in Brussels and other EU27 capitals will spend a few more weeks watching in horror — or, in some cases, with twisted pleasure — as British politicians tear each other apart in London.
Boris Johnson says he would rather end up “dead in a ditch” than do it, but a law that will reach the statute book Monday night will compel the U.K. prime minister to request an extension beyond Brexit’s current Halloween date, provided his aides don’t find a way around it. (Those in Brussels fearing no-deal are more worried about Johnson defying the law than an EU27 leader vetoing an extension request.)
If Johnson surrenders to the law (rather than the police), he won’t necessarily need to come to Brussels in person: A written request, delivered by Ambassador Tim Barrow, just like the original Article 50 letter, might serve just as well, EU insiders said. But despite extreme frustration in the EU capital and across the EU27 with the Brexit mess in London, they have too much at stake to push the U.K. over the no-deal cliff.
Officially, the EU line on Brexit remains a strictly factual one: The 27 heads of state and government will consider an extension request if one is submitted by the British prime minister. The European Commission’s chief spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, has also reiterated the EU’s long-standing position (unchanged since before the first two Brexit extension requests) that any delay must be for “a good reason.”
Publicly, some EU27 ministers are talking tough, warning as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian did recently, that the bloc is furious and unwilling to grant the U.K. a reprieve from the October 31 cliff edge — absent substantial new developments.
“In the current circumstances, it’s ‘no,'” Le Drian told French media over the weekend. “We’re not going to go through this every three months.”
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He added: “They have to tell us what they want.”
His words were echoed by Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel. “For the moment, I have just one deal on the table,” Bettel told POLITICO of the Withdrawal Agreement that has been rejected by the House of Commons three times.
“I don’t know why we should have a new delay, why we should have a new deal, this deal is the best possible deal. If there’s reason [for a delay] I’ll accept, but I still have no reason, I still have no clue what they want.”
In Brussels, such threats are viewed as both a genuine expression of current EU27 sentiment — they are thoroughly fed up with Britain and its national mess — and also as perfectly accurate. They want the U.K. to provide some substantive reason for a delay, though that doesn’t seems difficult given that a national election within weeks or months is now regarded as inevitable.
At the same time, such threats are viewed as strategically useful, serving to counter the long-running conspiracy theory among Brexit supporters that somehow the EU is in cahoots with Remain forces in the U.K., working to thwart Britain’s departure altogether.
But privately, senior officials acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to imagine that the EU27 would force a no-deal scenario by denying an extension request.
Such a move, they concede, would make the EU and the 27 capitals responsible, at least in the public’s mind, for the acute economic harm expected as a result of no deal, no matter the many months of insisting that London and London alone would be to blame for a no-deal outcome.
On a more practical level, rejecting an extension request would force the new European Commission to take office on November 1 effectively in a state of emergency. While Commission officials insist the EU is as ready as possible for a disorderly no-deal departure, with extensive legal and financial contingency plans, they also readily admit it is impossible to fully prepare for such an unprecedented event, and that readiness varies among the 27 remaining EU countries.
“I don’t believe that if the U.K. asks for an extension we’ll say no,” one EU27 diplomat said. “The length of the extension and the purpose is another issue.”
A senior EU official with a role in the deliberations said there is nothing for the EU27 to gain by forcing the U.K. out without an agreement. “No deal is not a good prospect for the Continent either,” the official said.
But the senior official conceded that there is virtually nothing the 27 could do but watch the political horror show in London, and wait. “Buy popcorn,” was the official’s wry advice.
Anything could happen
Given the volatility of the political situation in the U.K., and the sheer unpredictability of what will happen between now and the October 31 deadline, officials cautioned that it is impossible to rule out any scenario.
But in interviews, EU officials and diplomats expressed greater concern that Johnson would try to defy the House of Commons and refuse to request an extension than any real doubt about the ultimate willingness of EU27 heads of state and government to grant an extension.
Several officials pointed to public comments by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove raising doubt about whether Johnson would abide by a law requiring him to seek an extension.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, in an appearance with Johnson in Dublin, stressed that it is futile for anyone to think no deal would provide any sort of escape from the web of complex issues surrounding Brexit.
“There is no such thing as a clean break,” Varadkar said, offering a preview of what would certainly be a pillar of his argument to fellow leaders in favor of granting an extension.
“We just enter a new phase,” Varadkar said. “If there is no deal, I believe that’s possible, it will cause severe disruption for British and Irish people alike. We will have to get back to the negotiating table. When we do, the first and only items on the agenda will be citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish border.”
The Brexit coordinator in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, spoke out over the weekend in support of Le Drian’s tough line against granting an extension without some sign of major progress from the British side.
Several EU officials said that the deepening political crisis in London offers proof that French President Emmanuel Macron was correct to oppose a longer extension when the European Council voted in April to postpone the cliff-edge date to October 31. That was the second extension granted by the Council to then Prime Minister Theresa May, having postponed previously from the original March 29 deadline for the U.K.’s departure.
May had requested an extension only until June 30 while Council President Donald Tusk and some other leaders had endorsed a much longer extension, of perhaps a year or more.
“The French stand is getting more and more traction,” an aide to Verhofstadt said. “They start to see that Macron was right when, at the last summit, he did not want to grant an unconditional extension to the U.K. and wanted to finish the business. An extension is impossible unless there is fundamental change, and not under the current circumstances. The EU has a deal and the deal is on the table.”
Still, a second EU diplomat said that the view in Paris is a bit more textured than recent public pronouncements suggest and that the Elysée would be open to a brief extension, perhaps up to two months, in order to let the U.K. hold a national election and create conditions for a final Brexit agreement by the time EU27 leaders hold their December summit.
“In this moment, Paris is calling the shots; Germany will follow the consensus,” the second diplomat said. “But Paris’ position is more nuanced than it seems.”
“Just a few weeks,” the diplomat added, predicting what Macron would accept. “The deal has to be done at December’s Council.”
While the consensus view in the EU is that Brexit is a disaster for all concerned, there is also a sense that the U.K.’s political problems — including May’s resignation — and the continuing deadlock in Westminster have made clear that quitting the bloc is a mistake that no other EU country will want to replicate.
But even if a deal is theoretically possible, the window for getting it agreed, and then through ratification in the U.K. and European parliaments, is closing fast — not to mention that the political deadlock in Westminster seems worse than ever.
“They are just totally stuck,” the senior EU official said. “Is there a majority in the House of Commons for anything at this stage?”
Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.
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