It’s official: Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit. At least not on April 12.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May formally appealed to the EU Friday for yet another extension of the U.K.’s departure date, perhaps until June 30. Or maybe until May 22. Or maybe sooner.
The two-and-a-half page letter to Council President Donald Tusk sparked alarm in Brussels. Significant concerns remain that the continued uncertainty poses a threat to the integrity of the European Parliament election and that a half-in-half-out U.K. could adopt a policy of future non-cooperation that the EU would be unable to control. EU leaders still have not had an answer to the questions they asked when they delayed Brexit day last time: What exactly would such an extension be for, and how would it achieve a different outcome?
May’s meandering missive was more of an expression of frustration than an exposition of a plan. It included a rehash of her recent lament over the failure to find a consensus in London — “This impasse cannot be allowed to continue” — as if Tusk, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker or any of the other 440 million people in the rest of the EU were at fault for the impasse in Westminster.
And there was an update on the status of her negotiations with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — “we agreed follow-up discussions that are now taking place” — as if an agreement to more discussions would somehow be reassuring or illuminating. In any case, those talks appeared stalled on Friday, with a Labour party spokesperson saying that May was offering no “real change or compromise.”
Even officials who have followed the Brexit process intimately from the beginning were left struggling to asses the bottom line.
Philippe Lamberts, the Belgian leader of the Greens group in the European Parliament, offered this take: “As long as they’re not gone, they’re here.”
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Indeed, they are not gone.
For weeks now, May has talked about the prospect of the U.K. participating in the European Parliament election as if she were being asked to join a Syphilis support group. She calculates it would be politically toxic to run the election in the U.K. nearly three years after voters gave an instruction to the government to leave the EU.
But that has not gone over well in Brussels, where the once-in-five-year election is viewed as the purest display of European democracy in action.
So May’s promise to undertake “lawful and responsible preparations” to take part in the election generated most attention in Brussels on Friday. But she also expressed a desire to wrap up Brexit in time to cancel the election, leading EU officials to begin calculating the potential winners and losers in the event that the reapportionment of seats approved in anticipation of Brexit is frozen. Many expect the election will be a wild undertaking in Britain, becoming a proxy not just for a second referendum on Brexit, but also on May’s handling of Brexit.
Lamberts said he believed that pro-EU forces would prevail.
“Those who have a clear position on Europe will win, while those who want to leave and don’t have clear solutions will not know what to campaign for,” he said, adding that he expected his own Greens, and the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is a member of the Greens political family, would be among those to gain. “If there are EU elections with the Brits, it’s going to benefit us,” he added.
On the other side of the argument, UKIP and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party will seek to harness popular frustration in the U.K. that a departure promised for March 29 has not yet materialized.
In the end, May’s request for an extension to June 30, but her hope to carry out Brexit by May 23, was largely immaterial. Tusk got out in front of May by proposing a one-year “flextension” under which the U.K. would be given time to work out a Brexit plan, but could leave as soon as it was ready.
“How would it work in practice?” a senior EU official quoted Tusk as saying. “We could give the U.K. a year-long extension, automatically terminated once the Withdrawal Agreement has been accepted and ratified by the House of Commons.”
“It seems to be a good scenario for both sides, as it gives the U.K. all the necessary flexibility, while avoiding the need to meet every few weeks to further discuss Brexit extensions,” the official continued, quoting Tusk.
The concept got a positive reception at a meeting of EU diplomats on Friday morning, though hardly a unanimous one. French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed concerns repeatedly in recent days about the negative consequences of the U.K.’s departure dragging on interminably.
The French government on Friday reiterated those concerns, saying that May needed to articulate a more concrete plan.
“It strikes us as a clumsy trial balloon,” an official close to Macron said of the “flextension” plan. “Looking into an extension at this stage is premature,” the official said, noting that EU27 leaders had set clear parameters for any further delay. “The condition set out at the last [European Council summit] still stands: for an extension beyond April 12 the U.K. must present a credible alternative plan. May’s letter doesn’t so far, so everything is on the table.”
While some governments, including Poland, expressed a clear preference on Friday for avoiding a no-deal scenario, others also saw May’s letter as insufficient. “A delay only makes sense if we understand the reason for it,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters in The Hague. Other countries, including Germany and Italy, have been resolute in wanting to avert a no-deal scenario but also see the need for imposing conditions on any further delay.
Backbench Brexiteer leader Jacob Rees-Mogg also got the attention of Brussels by declaring on Twitter that if the U.K. remains part of the EU it should work to sabotage the bloc’s operations. “If a long extension leaves us stuck in the EU,” he wrote, “we should be as difficult as possible.”
Some EU diplomats said officials were exploring options for extracting a “sincere cooperation” pledge from the British government as a precondition of any further extension of the Brexit deadline. But several officials said they did not believe there was any way to legally assure that the U.K. would not be disruptive but that May could make a political commitment.
Rees-Mogg’s comment highlighted the clear risk that Brexit could turn nasty.
The French official said Macron was intent on putting the smooth functioning of the EU above all else. “No deal is never the option we will choose,” the official said. “But it may be a fatality, if the U.K. doesn’t propose a credible alternative plan.”
Jacopo Barigazzi and Lili Bayer contributed reporting.
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