Brussels summit likely to award UK extension on Brexit

Friday crash-out set to be averted but questions linger as to length and purpose of delay

European Council president Donald Tusk and EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier: there are fears an extension will raise the risk of further short extensions and emergency summits. Photograph: Frederick Florin/AFP

European Council president Donald Tusk and EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier: there are fears an extension will raise the risk of further short extensions and emergency summits. Photograph: Frederick Florin/AFP

 

There is a strong expectation in Brussels that Wednesday’s summit will give the UK the negotiating extension sought by prime minister Theresa May. How long that will be – from two and a half months to as long as a year – and whether it will be flexible, allowing the UK to leave at any stage once it has agreed a deal, remains, as one diplomat put it, above “my pay grade”.

It will be for the EU27 leaders to decide. What almost all observers agree, however, is that although the UK will be not be allowed to crash out of the union on Friday evening, a no-deal Brexit remains stubbornly on the cards down the line.

May will address the leaders at about 5.30pm Irish time and then face a grilling from the 27 that at the March 21st summit lasted an hour and a half. Then the 27 will sit down to a “working dinner” to thrash out their position. No one is predicting an early result.

The British prime minister will have to satisfy fellow leaders on:

  • The credibility of her claim that her new approach – talks with Labour – will secure a majority for anything in the House of Commons, and the genuineness of her commitment to sacrifice at least some of her red lines;
  • How to reconcile the view that offering the UK more time will take pressure off obdurate MPs and encourage endless prevarication, with the desire of others, Ireland included, to give the UK the time and space it needs;
  • How to ensure that if the UK remains a member of the EU for a few more months it will not use the unanimity voting system to disrupt the business of the union.

Crucially, there will be no movement on two principles: the unamendability of the withdrawal agreement and insistence that it will be part of any deal; and the requirement of the UK, accepted by May, to contest the European elections on May 23rd if Britain is still an EU member.

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Concept of 'flextension'

Any longer extension will necessitate participation in the elections. Such an extension is an option reportedly opposed by French president Emmanuel Macron and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

On Tuesday night, in his summit invitation letter to leaders, European Council president Donald Tusk weighed in behind his widely touted “flextension” idea. “Our experience so far, as well as the deep divisions within the House of Commons,” he said, “give us little reason to believe that the ratification process can be completed by the end of June. In reality, granting such an extension would increase the risk of a rolling series of short extensions and emergency summits, creating new cliff-edge dates.

“This, in turn, would almost certainly overshadow the business of the EU27 in the months ahead. The continued uncertainty would also be bad for our businesses and citizens. Finally, if we failed to agree on any next extension, there would be a risk of an accidental no-deal Brexit.

“This is why I believe we should also discuss an alternative, longer extension. One possibility would be a flexible extension, which would last only as long as necessary and no longer than one year, as beyond that date we will need to decide unanimously on some key European projects. The flexibility would allow to terminate the extension automatically, as soon as both sides have ratified the withdrawal agreement. The UK would be free to leave whenever it is ready.”

Expectation of May

Ministers and EU officials at Tuesday’s preparatory Luxembourg meeting of European Affairs ministers were willing to praise the British government’s talks with Labour as “serious” and clear evidence of a commitment to finding a new course to that majority. But they also made clear that May would have to do more than cite her willingness to meet Labour to satisfy their demand for a convincing justification for extra time.

They were not making a willingness by her to embrace the idea of a customs union a precondition of an extension, but Barnier’s lengthy praise for such a union’s wondrous potential benefits was much more than a helpful suggestion.  Both he and Tánaiste Simon Coveney reiterated the EU enthusiasm for changes to the political declaration that would enhance the ambition and closeness of the future EU-UK relationship.

And, just as fears of the reliability of a May successor in honouring her commitments once she has gone have proved an obstacle to DUP support for any promises on the backstop, so similar fears are complicating EU leaders’ deliberations. May promised to observe the obligation to “sincere co-operation” – diplomatic speak for “good behaviour” – in her letter last week should the EU remain a member of the union.

But ministers on Tuesday were discussing how on earth such a promise could be policed – a member’s rights cannot be suspended, and assurances of good faith by the British prime minister may well not cut the mustard. 

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