The Brexit referendum was held in June 2016. Yet thirty-three months since the vote, the government has no coherent plan. Parliament has not been able to gather a majority for any strategy. Polarisation has been steadily increasing in wider society. And it is proposed that the EU perpetuate this situation by significantly postponing the Article 50 deadline? A short extension is sensible but to draw the process out for much longer would be a grave error.
Everyone has their share of responsibility in this fiasco. On the British side, with some brilliant exceptions, the political class has been abysmally incompetent. The prime minister set contradictory red lines. Many Conservative personalities are concerned primarily with their own careers. Labour’s position is also incoherent. And after its first set of indicative votes, the House of Commons was still unable to support a solution. Europe is negotiating with a partner which incredibly has still not defined what it wants.
On the European side there is less nonsense, but still there has been hypocrisy. “We did everything we could,” the government leaders say hand on heart. It’s false. The European Union started the negotiation by saying that it would first negotiate an exit agreement without addressing the future relationship. Then it did the exact opposite, and incorporated provisions on the future into an agreement on the past. Naturally, this pollutes the whole negotiation. The text is legally dubious and the EU could pay hugely for this mistake later. Rather than behaving like pernickety bean counters, they should have focussed on the bigger questions.
What now? A small technical postponement of Article 50, until the end of May or June, creates few problems, and has to be accepted. A big one, from four to 21 months, however, creates many. The first impact will come from the UK’s participation in the European elections. The British seats have already been redistributed to other countries, meaning there would have to be painful adjustments. Brexit will naturally become part of the electoral campaign in all member states, will feed the populist wave, and displace debate about other matters. Additionally, governments could soon find themselves negotiating all current European issues (beginning with the new budget) with someone as trustworthy as prime minister Boris Johnson.
The most painful part of Brexit, however, is the uncertainty,…