The Dangers of Extending Brexit

Extending the Brexit process would create difficulties for the rest of Europe that have not received sufficient attention. The EU might seek to resolve these difficulties in ways that create further problems for the UK.

Most of the analysis on Brexit focuses on the current mess in British politics. The question is almost always the same: how can Prime Minister Theresa May build a majority for her deal? Part of the answer lies in the alternatives available to Parliament, part lies in the structure of the vote, and part lies in the timing.

What is harder to find is analysis of the situation in the rest of Europe, apart from the statements of certain prominent leaders. Some of these, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have shown some willingness to accommodate the British political process. Others, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, have displayed a higher degree of frustration. And there are those who, like Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, would clearly prefer the British to stay in the European Union but who face a very complex and delicate political calculus, and therefore say things that can be hard to interpret. Much of the rest of Europe only talks about Brexit when asked about it, and it is not clear how often the subject comes up.

Nevertheless, there is a calculus on the European side that should be considered. That calculus is every bit as complicated as the one faced in Britain, and could have a considerable impact on the timing of the British process and on the alternatives available to the British government. The worry is that few people in the United Kingdom are paying close attention to the Brexit dynamics unfolding in the rest of the EU – and that few people in the EU are aware of the speed and force with which this issue will rise to the surface. Most Europeans, while observing the travails of British politics with a mixture of concern and bewilderment, are not currently engaged in the Brexit conversation. That relative indifference will not last.

The European parliamentary election, to be held in May, is threatening to complicate both the UK’s and the EU’s decision-making significantly. It is safe to say that no one – including those who most ardently desire that the UK stay in the EU – is eager to see the British participate in that election. Given the febrile political environment in the UK and the country’s deep divisions over the EU, the European parliamentary election would be a lightning rod for popular discontent. That means the British either have to leave the EU as scheduled on 29 March, or secure a short extension that takes them up to the election. Alternatively, the EU (meaning, really, the European Council’s legal service) needs to come up with some rationale for a longer extension that does not involve British participation in the election.


Prolonging the agony

The most complicated, and therefore the most interesting, of these alternatives is the prospect of a longer extension.

Many analysts familiar with Brussels’ inner workings believe that where there is a will, there is a way – that some political solution can be found to sidestep Britain’s treaty-based obligation to provide its citizens with direct and proportional representation in the European Parliament. Even so, this would be a complicated proposition that would contradict the fundamental principles of both the European Parliament and the EU. Imagine for a moment how such a manoeuvre could be used by anti-European parties in other countries: they could claim that Europe’s mainstream parties only support democracy at the European level when they believe the outcome will align with their preferences. Thus, the first problem with a longer extension is that it would require either that the rest of Europe force the UK to participate in some way in the European election, or that the mainstream European political parties campaign for the European Parliament on a platform of denying eurosceptical Brits their treaty-based rights to democratic representation. Neither proposition seems very attractive.

The second problem with a long extension is that it would unleash political dynamics in the UK that are likely to make that country more, rather than less, challenging as an interlocutor for the rest of the EU. The current government has no majority in favour of any agreement that includes an Irish backstop. Therefore, any long extension must include some political process that changes that parliamentary arithmetic – either through a second referendum, or through a national election, or both. Such a political process will be polarising for the leadership of both main British political parties. The same process will also be polarising in terms of the selection of a new parliamentary membership. Hence, it is hard to imagine what kind of coalition-building might take place following an electoral contest. There could be a monochrome Conservative government under a pro-Brexit leader such as Boris Johnson, a resurgent Labour government under a reinvigorated Jeremy Corbyn, some kind of weak minority government, or a hung parliament.

Most of these British political options are unattractive from a European perspective. A strong, pro-Brexit Conservative government would bring an unhealthy mixture of bluster and brinkmanship into any negotiations. A weak minority government or a hung parliament would constitute another serving of the current situation warmed over. A monochrome Labour government could offer a fresh start, but the pathway to that outcome is an obscure one, and the prospect of a constructive new round of talks between Britain and the EU is anything but certain. Of course, there are unicorn possibilities, such as a pro-EU, cross-party British government forming after a decisive second referendum, leading to a completely restructured British party system. But to admit to the possibility of this kind of outcome, one must also admit to the existence of other, much darker creatures. The prospect of the Europeans placing a bet on the existence of unicorns at the expense of openly violating their own democratic principles and undermining the electoral campaigns of the mainstream parties is not a promising one. They would have to be both cynical and reckless.


The least-bad option?

The British could always provide assurances that would offset much of this analysis. The question is whether such assurances would be any more credible than the current negotiated agreement. This is not to discount the possibility that the EU will find some formula for muddling through. The Union’s capacity to kick the can down the road was manifest in the endless rounds of treaty revisions that followed the agreement on the EU at Maastricht, and during the recent financial crisis. Moreover, there is a sound political logic at work in Europe’s incremental, halting institution-building and reform process. But recent experience with Cyprus and Greece has shown that it is not safe to assume that the EU will always behave in this way.

A short extension would make matters easier because it would not involve a compromise of the EU’s democratic principles or the institutional integrity of the European Parliament. What is less clear is what a short extension would accomplish. If Theresa May calls for a short extension, then that would probably mean she has either failed to call for a third meaningful vote on her negotiated agreement, or she has failed to secure its passage through Parliament. Either way, the UK would be no closer to accepting the Irish backstop, while the rest of the EU would be no closer to throwing the Irish under the bus. The prospect of a short extension is unlikely to change that parliamentary arithmetic, and it may unleash unexpected political dynamics. May could lose the confidence of Parliament. She cannot be challenged outright for leadership, but the grey men of the Conservative Party could make her life so miserable that she would finally quit. If this calculus is correct, then ‘heads’ means nothing changes, and ‘tails’ means Britain’s political dynamics change in ways that cannot be reconciled in just a few weeks.

Here again, it is worth considering the interaction between a short extension and the European parliamentary election. If the rest of Europe grants a short extension and nothing changes, then the UK faces the cliff edge in late May, on the eve of the European contest. Europe’s mainstream parties would be heading to the polls with all the mayhem associated with a hard Brexit looming in the background. Alternatively, providing another extension would create all the problems associated with the denial of British democratic representation – not to mention the confusion that would surround the number of seats being contested by the rest of Europe and their distribution across the various member states. These are not irresolvable problems; lawyers and technocrats specialise in such contingencies. The point is simply that the timing is off. Any positive message about the future of Europe would get crowded out by criticism of how both the British and the rest of the EU had handled the end of their relationship.

None of this is to say that a strict enforcement of the 29 March deadline is an attractive prospect. No one in continental Europe has an interest in seeing the British crash out of the Union. But if the alternatives are to provide the eurosceptical parties with a powerful campaign message by cynically burying the rights of the British to democratic representation in Europe, or to create a political crisis that drowns out any positive message on the eve of the European parliamentary election, then dealing with the British problem at the end of March might be the least bad option. The rest of Europe’s political leadership is well aware of the difficulties that a hard Brexit will create. Nevertheless, this may give them the opportunity to show how they can rise to the challenge. It would also allow them to offer up the British (in their plight) as a stark lesson of the damage that a purely negative form of euroscepticism can create. These would not be easy messages to sell in the run-up to the European parliamentary election, but they are preferable to being branded as undemocratic or incompetent.

All of this assumes, of course, that the British will not bring themselves to accept May’s negotiated agreement. If the British Parliament allows May to hold a third meaningful vote, and if a majority of the members decide to support the deal, then all of this analysis will become irrelevant. The reason for presenting this line of argument is to consider what might happen if the British Parliament decides once again to reject May’s agreement. There has been a lot of speculation, and the uncertainties are immense. How things might play out in the rest of Europe, however, deserves closer attention. No matter what Europe’s leaders say about their willingness to be accommodating, there will be a political reckoning that will be in their own interest rather than Britain’s.

This piece was originally published on the Survival editors’ blog at the IISS. For the edited version, go here.  The picture is copied from the Survival website.