The government’s latest Brexit proposal is as deranged as anything it has put forward in the past three yearsby Jonathan Lis / April 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
Wouldn’t it be nice if just for once, our prime minister acted in the national interest? If she asked something of the EU that was not motivated by devotion to her defeated red lines, short-term self-interest or terror of her backbenches?
Alas, not this time. On Friday Theresa May wrote her latest letter to European Council president Donald Tusk, requesting an extension to Article 50 for the second time. The deadline of 29th March, upon which May insisted more than a hundred times, may as well never have existed. Rather, she now insists on a new date, which is equally unrealistic, and which has already been rejected by the EU: 30th June.
This being Theresa May, we should have expected nothing less. When her negotiating partners asked her for seriousness and respect, she gave them tricks and self-delusion. The 30th of June is a nonsensical deadline in almost every sense. It gives us no time to hold a general election, or second referendum, or to re-evaluate the terms of our exit in any meaningful way. It barely gives time for parliament to agree on a new political declaration on the future relationship, negotiate it with the EU and put it into UK law.
It makes no political sense even on May’s own terms. The prime minister proposed that date last month as she was advised it was the latest possible moment to avoid European elections. That is because the new European Parliament only begins its term on 1st July. But the European heads of government disagreed with that reasoning, and decided that the UK would need to participate in the actual elections, on 23rd May, if we were still members on that day. May had to concede the point.
And so the PM now finds herself, extraordinarily, proposing that we might conduct a nationwide six-week campaign for those elections, and duly vote for the new MEPs, but all with the express proviso that none of them will ever take up their seats. This is now literally government policy, and as deranged as anything it has proposed in the last three years.
The further we move towards Brexit, the profounder the cynicism becomes. May knows full well that it would be absurd to elect MEPs who will never claim their seats. She knows too that the EU will never accept such a request. But we long ago abandoned any pretence of being a serious country led by a serious government. Pragmatism is dead. Every decision May takes is designed only to nudge her premiership into the next day.
The prime minister should recognise that her deal has been comprehensively defeated, and that the EU will only now offer a long extension—and duly request one. But her MPs would rise up against her. And so she must nudge and wink her way out of her self-created national crisis, and ask the EU to do her dirty work. It must be they who demand the long extension she knows we need, and consequently also they who take responsibility for it.
Luckily for us, the EU is showing itself to be far more patient than we deserve. Instead of granting our request—which would be a cruelty to both sides—it will likely offer us an extension of up to a year, with a “guillotine” clause if we pass the withdrawal agreement before that time. This early exit—which Tusk dubs “flextension”—is provided for in Article 50 itself. The alternative will be no extension, and therefore no deal—and the EU will almost certainly not pursue that.
There are two reasons why the EU will not grant us an extension until 30th June. First, it will not appreciate the mockery of “fake” European elections. Second, and more important, the EU knows that on past form, we are dizzyingly unlikely to have enacted the withdrawal agreement in law within just two months. It consequently will be loath to agree a series of short extensions. It is not the EU’s job to convene emergency summits every month just because our prime minister needs more road to kick the can down.
Although the Brexit war seems interminable, the Brexit fundamentalists for now look defeated. They know they do not have the numbers to force no-deal, and that May has finally taken fright of the prospect. They also see the government negotiating with the Labour Party and issuing signs about a customs union, which is Jeremy Corbyn’s minimum requirement. Jacob Rees-Mogg was today reduced to issuing threats about obstructing EU legislation during any long extension—and thus revealed that the “sovereignty” he craved had never been lost.
And so today’s development is encouraging. We will now prepare for European elections and almost certainly participate in them. That effectively removes the no-deal cliff-edge for good. We should also now have time to engage in full deliberations about the kind of Brexit we want, if indeed we want any at all.
But we will never live down this episode’s disgrace. Once again the prime minister confirmed that Brussels is a more reliable guarantor of our national interest than she could ever be.