April 10, 2019
EU first needs to decide what it wants from an extension: 2nd ref or ratification
There is really quite a bit of confusion in the news reports coming from Brussels last night and this morning. When EU leaders meet today, they will not mechanistically go through a series of dates. They will rather discuss what an extension should accomplish: do they want to put pressure on the UK parliament to ratify the withdrawal agreement; or do they want the UK to revoke Brexit, pending a second referendum? The best way to secure ratification, in our view, would be to agree a relatively short extension - until end-May or end-June, and to declare that extension final. That would take out all the Cooper-Letwin nonsense and other attempts to sideline the actual choice. It would force the UK parliament to focus on the three options that really are on the table: ratify, revoke or leave without a deal.
Donald Tusk has never left any doubt that he wants the UK to cancel Brexit. Hence, his idea of a one-year extension. We presume that the leaks came from his office. But we know for sure that this is not everybody’s position in the European Council. There are huge risks for the EU in a second referendum, most notably the risk of another pro-Brexit vote and the certainty that the UK will continue to dominate the EU’s agenda at a time when it should really be thinking about something else. Furthermore, by agreeing a long extension, EU leaders are very likely to take away the incentive for the UK government and the Labour Party to agree a deal, because the second-referendum supporters would no longer feel obliged to seek a compromise.
The EU is not only misjudging the potential outcome of a referendum, but also the debate likely to precede it. A second referendum is almost certain to confound two issues: Brexit and democratic legitimacy. We know of Remainers who are so revolted by the idea of a second referendum that they would support Brexit out of spite. Whatever the outcome, we don’t think it would settle the issue.
This consideration alone should persuade EU leaders to think through the scenario of a long extension more carefully than they have so far. We don’t know for sure how long Theresa May will survive. Maybe until the autumn. If she does not deliver Brexit by December and is still prime minister then, she will surely be ousted in a vote of confidence by her own party. A new Tory leader will be in place by early 2020 at the latest. The EU would then rely on that leader to deliver Brexit.
There is talk of an agreement between May and the European Council that the UK would exercise self-restraint during the extension period. But the European Council cannot bind her successors. It cannot override treaty law. Until it leaves, the UK will remain a full voting member at the Council.
A non-binding gentlemen’s agreement is certainly possible, but do EU leaders really believe that a future UK prime minister who openly advocates a no-deal Brexit would adhere to such an agreement? All Boris Johnson would need to do to trigger a no-deal Brexit would be to misbehave. The proposition of a gentlemen’s agreement seems ill-conceived to us, drawn up deep inside the European Council by people without a deep understanding of UK politics.
We have no doubt that Theresa May would adhere to anything she agrees with EU leaders, which is why the European Council should treat the foreseeable limit of her political life span as the outer date for a brexit extension. It is not clear that she can survive the summer. If the results of local and European elections next month turn out to be a rout for the Tories, the pressure on May to resign might become intolerable.
So what should the European Council do? There have been a lot of leaks yesterday about the extension date - most of them pointing towards a long extension. A German journalist, Stefan Leifert from ZDF television, writes the discussion will focus on three extension dates: end of this year, end-March 2020, end-December 2021. The latter would have the advantage of coinciding with the EU’s budget period - a shockingly trivial reason considering what is at stake. We are not sure that this timetable would survive the actual discussions among leaders.
We noted a brave prediction by the UK journalist Robert Peston who has been told that the EU is more likely to grant a short extension, since the current process of cross-party talks in the UK does not need more time. We all know that May will offer Labour a customs union, but she cannot do this right now. Maybe she will make a move after this week’s European Council.
It is possible of course that leaders are betting on a conclusion of the Brexit process after another UK election. May will be gone by the end of the year. But be careful what you wish for. An election remains vastly more probable than a second referendum. Under Jeremy Corbyn as leader, Labour will maintain its current Brexit stance - a customs union. The Tories could pivot towards a no-deal Brexit. We are not sure that the new centre party, campaigning in favour of a second referendum, will win many seats. The elections will thus offer the electorate an effective choice of customs union versus no deal. Why would EU leaders want to get to this point?