Whoever came up with the Article 50 process for leaving the European Union probably never thought it would be used, let alone turned into a maddening form of procedural torture worthy of Kafka.
Brexit was meant to have been wrapped up in March, yet the U.K.’s inability to decide what it wants has frustrated the best-laid plans of Brussels’s technocrats. After Westminster’s three rejections of former prime minister Theresa May’s original Brexit deal, and after the EU’s two extensions of the original Brexit deadline, Boris Johnson is now in Downing Street and we’ve entered a Bizarro World where reality has been turned upside down.
We have a new Brexit deal that the EU insists is not a renegotiation, a special arrangement for Northern Ireland that the U.K. says is not a backstop (the name of the original guarantee in May’s deal to avoid a hard border in Ireland), and an official British request for an extension to the Oct. 31 deadline that Johnson says he doesn’t want.
You can imagine the EU’s 27 other leaders taking deep breaths and counting to 10. The bloc has made a Herculean effort to parry British attempts to divide its members on Brexit, and last week’s hard-fought new deal with Johnson was greeted with back-slapping relief. Finally, the EU could get on with other issues, from a tariff war with Donald Trump’s America to tackling climate change and trying to hold a firm line on China.
France’s president Emmanuel Macron showered Johnson in compliments, no doubt glad that seeing off the Brits — amicably, of course — would remove an obstacle to his ambitions for deeper EU integration. Now, once again, the prospect of delay is back, and with it the threat of more contagion as Britain’s dysfunctional national politics infects the orderly running of the EU and threatens that cherished unity.
So what should the bloc do? Responding hastily is in nobody’s interest. Parliament hasn’t actually voted on the new Brexit deal yet. The demand for a three-month extension was forced on Johnson by British lawmakers as a way to make sure the Halloween deadline wouldn’t let him and his Brexiter allies bully the House of Commons into accepting “his deal or no deal.”
Any ruling from Brussels on an extension before Parliament votes on Johnson’s deal (which may happen in the next couple of days) would be seen as meddling in U.K. politics. Likewise, siding with Johnson by ruling out any delay would mean committing the EU to an ugly and economically damaging no-deal split on Oct. 31 if Westminster failed to rubber-stamp his deal.
If Members of Parliament do approve Johnson’s deal rapidly, the debate is moot. The EU would obviously give the U.K. enough time to jump through the various legislative hoops to put Brexit into law.
Where things get complicated is if Westminster thwarts Macron’s plans for a quick divorce and rejects Johnson’s deal. If the deal fails by a handful of votes, and if those votes come from Johnson’s disgruntled allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, then Macron’s more hawkish views on an extension could hold sway. Brussels might offer only a short delay (less than the three months asked for) to try to force the last few holdout MPs into line or face a no-deal exit.
But if Johnson’s deal is defeated heavily in the Commons, as May’s deal was, that will show the EU that Britain needs deeper political change to break the logjam. More dovish European calls for a longer extension — long enough to accommodate a general election or a second referendum — would probably win the day.
Even if it appears today that some kind of extension is inevitable, no one should underestimate how tense this debate might become among the EU’s leaders.
Macron’s impatience with London is spreading to his fellow leaders, with Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel talking of Britain as a post-Brexit “competitor.” There’s a point where infinite delays will be deemed costlier than no deal. Lionel Laurent, Bloomberg