The UK is discovering it is a cold place outside the room
For Britain the recent emergency summit was a vivid portrayal of what it means to be a third country
Britain’s prime minister Theresa May. A referendum driven by the slogan “take back control” has ended with her waiting outside a meeting of 27 European states deciding if the UK should be granted an extension or a crash-out. Photograph: Getty Images
On Wednesday the European Council of 27 met for the 12th time to address the Brexit conundrum. This underlines just how much political energy and time is being dissipated by the continuing challenge of the UK’s departure from the union. Following the meeting we still do not know when, how or even if the UK will exit the EU. We have a number of dates which will act as signposts for the next phase.
The EU has granted an extension to October 31st,which marks the end of this commission’s mandate. The UK may leave before this if it ratifies the withdrawal agreement.
The other important date is June 1st. If the UK does not hold European Parliament elections it membership ceases on that day without a deal.
The EU leaders spent hours deliberating because France in particular was wary of a long extension and wanted the UK out by June. The weight of the majority won the day as President Emmanuel Macron conceded a longer extension but with reservations.
The most important outcome from an EU perspective was the maintenance of EU unity, a marked feature of the Brexit negotiations.
My key take from the summit is that the UK will not leave the EU without a deal, and the EU will afford the UK every opportunity to arrange for an orderly exit or to change its mind.
There is no appetite for the risks associated with no deal. This matters as the disruption would have unknown and unknowable consequences for Europe and for future relations between the EU and the UK. No deal would simply be an unwelcome standoff on route to new negotiations but in far more difficult circumstances.
For the UK the summit was a vivid portrayal of what being a third country means. A referendum driven by the slogan “take back control” ended with the UK prime minister waiting outside for the outcome of a meeting of 27 European states deciding if the UK should be granted an extension or a crash-out.
EU membership at its core is about having a seat at the table and being able to influence outcomes. Brexit is the negation of this – as a lived political experience it represents a loss of voice and presence. It is a cold place outside the room.
The 27 achieved their goal of putting the ball firmly back in London’s court, and although the leaders will review Brexit in June, another emergency meeting will not be convened for the foreseeable future.
Interestingly, the conclusions of the meeting did not say anything about what should happen in the UK. It seems to me that the 27 have given up looking for a plan, and just want Theresa May to work through the next phase, either by achieving an agreement with Labour or a series of indicative votes.
May will try to get her deal through, and given her lack of enthusiasm for European Parliament elections in the UK, she has a small window of opportunity to achieve this.
If she agrees a customs union with Labour this will split her party, and in my view is not a sufficient concession for Labour. The cleanest outcome at this stage is for Labour to either vote for or abstain on the withdrawal agreement in return for a confirmatory vote on May’s deal or Remain.
Given the enormity of what Brexit means, and its long-term consequences for the future of the UK, there is a compelling argument that the people should be asked given the political paralysis in cabinet and in the House of Commons.
The biggest danger ahead lies in the toxic and polarised politics of the UK. May, who is hanging on to power by her fingernails, is stubborn, and unlikely to be replaced by someone who will take the long-term view of what is at stake.
The Conservative party membership and electorate are committed to leaving the EU. The Labour party is also divided, although its membership and electorate broadly favour Remain.
Jeremy Corbyn does not want to push for a referendum, but may be forced to over the coming months. The stalemate in politics probably needs a dramatic political event such as a new leader of the Conservative party, a general election or a referendum.
If the UK holds European Parliament elections in May and the Conservative party does badly in local elections, this may shift the political calculus. Paradoxically, the 2019 European Parliament elections may prove the most important in the history of UK’s membership, and would certainly provide a test of the public mood on Brexit.
It is remarkable that three year after the referendum the outcome of Brexit remains full of uncertainty and contingency. This is a source of frustration on the Continent. For the majority of member states, Brexit has ceased to be a first-order issue.
Because of Ireland’s geographical proximity and our shared border Brexit is high politics for us, but not for our partners in Europe. Patience is running out, and there has been a significant shift in attitudes towards the UK. A majority of those who worked on the Brexit negotiations on the EU side now feel that the UK has to leave and would only disrupt the EU in the longer term.
This was not a dominant view in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, but gathered momentum as the divorce talks progressed.
Brigid Laffan is director of the Robert Schuman centre for advanced studies at the European University Institute, Florence.