May deliberately led Britain to the brink of the Brexit cliff. After two rejections of her withdrawal agreement, the House of Commons has now called for an extension of the process. This also creates a new dilemma for the EU-27: Legally, it is possible to extend the exit negotiations with the United Kingdom (UK) without restrictions. This requires a unanimous decision by the heads of state and government of the EU-27 and the approval of the British government. Politically, however, there are two major concerns of the EU-27: On the one hand, it is completely unclear at this stage what purpose an extension will have and whether the UK can commit to a process to resolve the Brexit deadlock. The many votes in the Commons have shown that the problem is not a lack of time, but rather a lack of majority support for one of the Brexit options.
On the other hand, the European elections on 23–26 May represent a political hurdle. If Britain is still a member of the European Union (EU) at that time – with all its rights and obligations – European Parliament elections will need to be held there. A scenario in which there is an extension of the Brexit process until 30 June 2019, but without European elections in the UK, is being discussed in London with reference to the fact that the new European Parliament does not meet until 2 July. However, this would not only deprive the British of their right to vote, but also the citizens of other EU states living in the United Kingdom. Complaints before the European Court of Justice would be inevitable. This conflict gives rise to three options for a Brexit extension.
The first option would be a short extension with no clear perspective to pass the withdrawal agreement or to allow better preparation for a no-deal Brexit. This would be particularly necessary for the United Kingdom. According to the UK government, one-third of its critical systems are not yet ready for a no-deal Brexit. Also, important laws for the management of a no-deal Brexit – for example, to govern independent trade or agricultural policy – have not yet passed parliament. The situation is different in the EU. Since the negative votes in Westminster, preparations for the no-deal scenario have been intensified, and all the necessary legislation has been introduced at the EU and national levels. A no-deal Brexit would hit the UK particularly hard but also the EU. However, the EU regards itself to be as ready as it can be, and a minimally longer preparation period would not result in any relief. On the contrary, for European companies that have prepared as far as possible for a potential no-deal exit on 29 March 2019, a postponement would create additional costs. The EU should therefore not accept a short but blind extension.
The second option is a short technical extension to allow for the current deal to be implemented: Should May, contrary to expectations, get a majority to support the present withdrawal agreement in the next week, the EU-27 could agree to a short technical extension until mid-May – but only if she is successful. An orderly Brexit by the target date, 29 March 2019, is no longer possible. Even if British MEPs give their assent, formal approval of the agreement by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU is still required. In addition, further implementation and accompanying legislation must be put in place in the UK. If – and only if – the House of Commons accepts the withdrawal agreement, then the EU-27 should accept a short extension of four to six weeks without hesitation.
But what should the heads of state and government of the EU-27 do if Theresa May comes to Brussels without an accepted withdrawal agreement, but rather a request for an extension? Rejecting the request would do serious harm to the EU, as it would have to take a significant amount of responsibility for having pushed the UK over the no-deal Brexit cliff. The better answer would be to agree to an extension, but only if it lasts at least until the end of the year. Such an accommodation should be subject to the conditions that the European elections are held in the UK and that there will be no renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement.
This third option would be a major risk, but it would also have important advantages: The risk is that the UK will remain a member of the EU, with all its rights and obligations, during this extension. It would not only have to take part in the European elections; the 73 new British MEPs would also have a say in the future Commission, as would the British Prime Minister in the European Council.
This risk must be weighed against the EU’s great interest in achieving an orderly Brexit. Only a long extension of at least nine months provides the necessary time to resolve the political blockade in London, other than through a no-deal Brexit. The experiences of recent weeks have shown that neither Theresa May nor the British Parliament in its current composition are in a position to achieve an orderly Brexit with the EU. The British political elite has also proved incapable of reaching a cross-party compromise. Only the people can resolve this blockade through new elections and/or a second referendum.
With the conditional offer of a long extension, the EU-27 would show both a willingness to compromise and the necessary harshness. It would show a willingness to compromise because the EU-27 would clearly be signalling that the EU is open to an extension, so it would be British politicians who are condemning Britain to a no-deal Brexit. But the EU-27 would also be confronting the UK with a harsh choice: Accepting European Parliament elections in the UK would require a strong commitment by the UK government and the Commons to reject no deal and work towards a different outcome.
In the confused Brexit process, there are no easy options for the EU-27 either. The temptation to slam the door in the face of the British, who are always negotiating with themselves and demanding new special arrangements, or to grant them only an extension of a few weeks, is great. The better solution is an extension until at least the end of the year. While this would not completely avert the risk of an eventual no-deal Brexit, at this stage it offers the only opportunity for a different course than a no-deal Brexit.
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