This blog was written on Saturday morning, April 6th
Next Friday, the UK is due to leave the European Union, with or without a deal. As I write these words, and having been a close observer of Brexit for quite some time now, I have no idea how the coming week will play out.
Last Friday morning the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, wrote to Donald Tusk, at the EU Council, to ask that the leave date be pushed back until June 30th. She says that this would allow time for her government to complete talks with the opposition Labour Party about an agreed way forward on Brexit and for the necessary legislation to be put through parliament.
She acknowledged that this date would require the UK to participate in European Parliament elections in May but she hoped that the Withdrawal Agreement would be through the House of Commons before May 22 allowing the UK to cancel its participation in the elections at the last minute. In other words, “Can we screw about with your elections. They are not that important, after all, are they?”
However, by Friday evening the talks with the Labour Party appear to have collapsed. Rather than seeking a compromise, it seems that May’s representatives spent their time with the Labour team trying to “educate” them in just how good the Withdrawal Agreement was and why they should back it.
Even as the talks between the government and Labour were underway and May was asking the EU for another extension, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Conservative Brexit-ultras in the Commons was tweeting:
If a long extension leaves us stuck in the EU we should be as difficult as possible. We could veto any increase in the budget, obstruct the putative EU army and block Mr Macron’s integrationist schemes.
By Saturday morning, the Guardian was reporting that the French ambassador to the EU had secured the support of Spanish and Belgian colleagues in arguing that there should only be, at most, a short article 50 extension to avoid an instant financial crisis, saying: “We could probably extend for a couple of weeks to prepare ourselves in the markets.”
The French secretary of state for European affairs, Amélie de Montchalin, told the Guardian in a statement:
“The European council took a clear decision on 21 March … Another extension requires the UK to put forward a plan with clear and credible political backing.” The council would then define the necessary conditions attached to that extension, she said. “[I]n the absence of such a plan, we would have to acknowledge that the UK chose to leave the EU in a disorderly manner.”
Press reports also suggest that the Rees-Mogg tweet was causing concern. “The functioning of the EU is a central element as how we proceed,” an official was quoted as saying. “The tweet of Jacob Rees-Mogg showed what they are capable of.”
Another EU source added that the threat implicit in the Conservative MP’s tweet was “turning into the biggest issue”. “How can we make sure the UK doesn’t pull a Jacob Rees-Mogg? How can we make sure they play nice? On the one hand a short extension or a no-deal carries risks, but a long extension risks paralysis.”
Later, the European parliament’s chief Brexit representative, Guy Verhofstadt, wrote in response to Rees-Mogg’s tweet: “For those in the EU who may be tempted to further extend the Brexit saga, I can only say, be careful what you wish for.”
So, as of now, it does appear that the UK will leave the EU next Friday in a “no-deal” Brexit.
It seems to me that it is unlikely that the EU will give the UK more time just to “kick the can around”. What would be the point? Things will be just the same in three, six, nine months’ time. The UK political system is paralysed, unable to make a decision. And while the can keeps getting kicked around in the House of Commons the Mogg-ites are threatening to wreck the EU from within.
The Daily Telegraph, the “house journal” of the Conservative Party this morning (Saturday) makes it clear that if May accepts a long extension from the EU she will immediately be ousted as prime minister. Her replacement would, in all likelihood, be a hard-Brexiteer prepared to play “Rees-Mogg” with the EU.
Why would a rational EU say to the UK: “Here’s a big stick. Beat us with it as often as you want until we give you what you want”? It is just not going to happen.
It is a question that answers itself.
How the UK got to this point is worth a few thoughts.
Back in 2015/2016, many Brexiteers were convinced that the EU was on the point of imploding and disintegrating.
The Greek debt crisis had sent shivers down many a spine. Waves of migration from Africa and the Middle East saw stark divisions between EU Member States over how to deal with the crisis. Authoritarian regimes were emerging in Hungary and Poland, openly flouting EU requirements on constitutional order. Many thought Marine Le Pen would be the next French president while Wilders looked like he could take control of the Dutch government.
A vote for Brexit would be the catalyst that would bring the EU crashing down. Other EU countries would quickly follow the UK out as they saw the benefits that the UK would soon reap after it had left. Leaving the EU would be easy and in what followed the UK would “hold all the cards”.
The mood of Leavers was captured in a 2016 interview with Dr. Liam Fox, an ardent Leaver and by then a UK cabinet member with responsibility for international trade. According to a report in the Express (here)
The International Trade Secretary…gave a scathing prediction for the future of the EU in an interview with The Spectator magazine, saying its “architecture is beginning to peel away… [the EU] is going to sacrifice at least one generation of young Europeans on the altar of the single currency, and you can only rip out the social fabric from so much of Europe before it starts imploding.”
Dr Fox said Brexit has severely weakened the Union’s economic stability and Germany should be quaking in its boots at the prospect of being the concrete that attempts to glue to the EU’s crumbling foundations together.
David Davis, another Leaver and, in late 2016, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union told an audience of bankers in London
…that EU member states such as France had ‘no faith’ in their economic models and ability to compete with an ‘Anglo-Saxon approach’
These interviews have not aged well.
It was at the same meeting that Davis said he was “not really interested” in a transitional deal to cushion Britain from the effects of Brexit and that he would consider one only in order to “be kind” to the EU. AS Britain’s “sudden” departure could compromise the EU’s financial stability he said he would be “more in favour” if the EU asked Britain for a transition.
Davis remarks prompted one senior EU official involved in Brexit preparations to express “astonishment” at the idea that it would be the EU playing the role of demandeur on transition, calling it “deluded”. “There is a denial of reality in London,” the official said. Another EU representative who met Mr Davis said: “I’m fed up with British politicians … they have no clue.”
As we now know, the EU did not implode. Far from it. While it is still grappling with major problems, Brexit has actually acted as a unifying force. Brexit became an “external enemy” which helped to mask internal differences. It is the UK that has imploded, politically.
As Jonathan Freedland puts it in the Guardian (here) “The lesson of this Brexit ordeal? The EU is a club worth belonging to”. As Freedland writes:
…look at it another way. It may fray a little at next week’s European council, but what we have seen since Britain triggered article 50 is the extraordinary solidity, even solidarity, of the 27 countries we are leaving behind. Who would have thought that a bloc representing more than 400 million citizens, stretching from frozen Nuorgam in Finland to balmy Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain, would remain united, no daylight between them – while the departing country has a split parliament, split government, split opposition and split cabinet? Put 22 British cabinet ministers in a room, and they can’t agree on anything. But, despite the Brexiter predictions that the EU27 would rapidly turn on each other and look out only for themselves – Germans cutting a deal to help their carmakers, Italians breaking away for the sake of their prosecco producers – they have maintained total discipline.
One thing Freedland’s article misses is that Brexit has created a vibrant pro-EU movement in the UK where one never previously existed. Millions of young and not-so-young people have become highly enthused about the UK’s membership of the European Union. To put it simply. The demographics are against Brexit. Brexit is yesterday’s country.
The next seven days will decide the UK’s future for a very long time to come.
Anything could happen.