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An Article 50 Extension Could Bolster The UK’s Brexit Stubbornness

As speculation about the United Kingdom requesting an extension of its Article 50 withdrawal period from the European Union continues to grow, Larissa Brunner and Fabian Zuleeg of the European Policy Centre suggest five reasons why this temporary solution to the Brexit impasse could actually weaken the EU’s own position in its negotiations with the UK while handing political and financial leverage to London.

While the EU27 would not outright reject a UK request for an extension of Article 50, not least because they would not want to be considered responsible for any chaos following a no-deal exit at the end of March, a longer political extension beyond the date of the European Parliament (EP) elections (23-26 May) would be risky for the EU for several reasons.

First, it would mean that the UK would almost certainly have to participate in the European elections. This would affect the configuration of the European Parliament as, conditional on Brexit, 27 of the UK’s 73 seats have been redistributed to other member states (the remaining 46 seats are held in reserve for future enlargements). If the UK were to participate, one option would be for these member states to give up their claim, which might be technically difficult as it would require changing domestic election laws and politically contentious if the UK still leaves after a few months. Another option might be to increase the size of the EP by adding the UK’s 73 seats to the new allocation, but that exceeds the maximum number allowed by the treaties, which means the treaties would have to be changed.

Letting the UK participate could also lead to a further increase in Eurosceptic MEPs, with adverse consequences for the balance of power in the EP and even more negative repercussions in the UK political system. If Brexit is delayed substantively, Leave supporters would worry about the UK not leaving after all, and are likely to see this as a betrayal of democracy. Remainers’ hope of reversing Brexit could be rekindled. As a consequence, both sides could effectively turn the European elections into a quasi-referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU. At the same time, those with moderate views on a range of topics, not necessarily focused on Brexit, would find it difficult to vote for either of the big parties. The result would probably be an increase in support for hardline Eurosceptics and for a people’s vote, while the big parties would struggle, making finding a resolution to the UK’s conundrum even more difficult.

Second, extending Article 50 up to or into the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021-2027 would require new budget contributions from the UK, which would be highly contentious domestically. If London ultimately agreed to make contributions, it would be very tempted to make these conditional on a Brexit deal. This would be unacceptable to the EU.

Third, granting a long extension would remove the EU’s, as well as Theresa May’s, leverage to push for a deal now. The Withdrawal Agreement has the best chance of getting through the UK Parliament if MPs face a binary choice, staring down the cliff edge: the deal, or a chaotic no-deal exit. Removing the immediate threat of no deal would mean giving up this leverage.

Fourth, and related to the previous point, it would make the EU look desperate to avoid no deal. This would be a gift to Brexiteers. From a game theoretical perspective, the Brexit negotiations are a game of chicken, with both sides trying to convince the other that they are not willing to back down. Granting a 21-month extension would be seen as a signal of weakness on the part of the EU and it would cost Brussels leverage and credibility in future negotiations with the UK.

Fifth, extending Article 50 would change nothing about the fundamental options available to the UK. While some argue that there might be a greater momentum for a people’s vote, there is nothing stopping Westminster from backing a 2nd referendum now. The reality is that the numbers are not there. A substantive extension is likely to merely delay painful but inevitable decisions, with only a very small chance of a reversal of the Brexit decision. Businesses would still be in limbo and see any plans they have already made for Brexit disrupted, most probably for no better outcome.

Meanwhile in The Independent newspaper the veteran British journalist and Middle East expert Patrick Cockburn discusses Britain’s former military frontier around its legacy colony in the north-eastern corner of Ireland:

Focus is often placed on the sheer difficulty of policing the 310-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because there are at least 300 major and minor crossing points. But the real problem is not geographic or military but political and demographic because almost all the border runs through country where Catholics greatly outnumber Protestants. The Catholics will not accept, and are in a position to prevent, a hard border unless it is defended permanently by several thousand British troops in fortified positions.

The threat to peace is often seen as coming from dissident Republicans, a small and fragmented band with little support, who might shoot a policeman or a customs’ official. But this is not the greatest danger, or at least not yet, because it is much more likely that spontaneous but sustained protests would prevent any attempt to recreate an international frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic that wasn’t backed by overwhelming armed force.

An essential point to grasp is that the British government does not physically control the territory, mostly populated by nationalists, through which the border runs. It could only reassert that control by force which would mean a return to the situation during the Troubles, between 1968 and 1998, when many of the 270 public roads crossing the border were blocked by obstacles or cratered with explosives by the British Army. Even then British soldiers could only move through places like South Armagh using helicopters.

In ignoring the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the British government is committing the same costly mistake it committed in the 50 years before 1968 which led to the fiercest guerrilla conflict in western Europe since the Second World War.



8 comments on “An Article 50 Extension Could Bolster The UK’s Brexit Stubbornness

  1. Honestly, I think they are going to use that extension to try to find some way to procure a remote on Brexit.


    • Revote on Brexit. Darned auto-correct.


      • Maybe, but I can’t see it myself. Some sort of Brexit is going to happen. The UK is going to leave the EU. It’s the type of leave that is in question. A full no-deal exit or Brexit in name only, with the UK so closely aligned to EU regulations and rules as to be a virtual member, and all variations in between is the more likely outcome.


        • I thought a revote was a distinct possibility all along. Britain, for some reason, doesn’t appear to have the chops to negotiate this move, and could easily end up backing out of it rather than running their country off a cliff.

          As determined as many Brexiteers are I don’t think there was much in the way of realistic expectations. And not wanting a catastrophe complete with late-Soviet style food shortages, massive factory shutdowns, and NHS hospitals running at half strength with basic shortages and borrowed time, could prove to be an extremely powerful motivator for much of The British population.

          I suspect that most of the time since the vote even most remained thought Britain would get “some sort of deal”, and now that the hard cold possibility of a no-deal Brexit is longer theoretical. So Labour and much of the public is starting to panic-I would probably be frightened if it was my country.


        • Another fundamental issue is the degree to which Britain’s strange unwritten Constitution doesn’t have any provisions or guidelines for a referendum and can’t really cope with one unless it reaffirms the status quo. I believe that the government decided to allow this referendum to mollify the Brexiteers but believed it wouldn’t go through.

          I short the British establishment expected to call Leavers bluff and were sorely mistaken.


  2. in the midst of the UK Government’s floundering over brexit, here’s how the debate/discussion on irish re-unification stands at present

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alan Gordon

    I don’t see the issues around brexit and the extending of art.50 as clear cut as Larissa Brunner and Fabian Zuleeg. The UK government need to present a viable reason to seek an extension. Embarrassment by any of the EU27 should they veto a UK request and subsequently be blamed for the chaos, is misplaced. Only one country can be blamed for this mess, the UK.

    The EU elections and ramifications, I view differently; after 29th March the UK has left, just not yet signed a deal. The EU is doing a good job of appearing as the more reasonable of the negotiating pair. To announce, at this moment, that the UK could not participate in the elections as they have in principal left the EU would not be prudent, just now.

    There was last week talk from within the EU of looking at an extension till 2021. My immediate thought was that they (the EU) were reacting to something and that somthing was likely to be the ERG group being “thrown under the bus”. This action would bring back the support from the dissenters and possibly some Labour MPs. I may have been correct in my guess because both Labour and the ERG have shifted position. Fearful of an extension?

    The call for a 2nd referendum is being resisted on two reasons,
    1) the numbers are not there, to give a clear and beyond doubt remain vote.
    2) having exploited the malcontent within the country by pointing out and giving reasons why they are pissed off, the government now have 17,4 million, still pissed but expectant voters. If the expectations of this 17,4 million are not met or seen to be met large scale civil unrest will follow.
    Farage, Tommy Robinson and Steve Bannon and others will see to it, they are already shit stirring. Westminster is fearful of where they are and where they may end up.

    Grace, don’t underestimate the self interest behind some of the players in the brexiteer camp. This whole fiasco has shown how many MPs are not working for the benefit of the UK. You are correct in saying that calling the referendum was to pacify the ERG group. It was also dealt with in this way to maintain power at Westminster. Better to have them inside pissing about than outside pissing in. This group has been a pain in the arse for the Tories for 40 years and looks like to continue to be so.


    • Oh what a ****** mess! But I’m sure some kind of workaround could be found if the will is there. Assuming Brexit will be reversed but it will take some time, maybe for a new UK election followed by a second referendum, and really perhaps for all the implications to sink in widely enough for the necessary change in attitudes to diffuse though the population. So maybe the answer would be for the UK to enter some kind of Brexit in Name Only, a sort of limbo state neither really in nor out, while the nation comes to its senses and in parliament the Remainers take control …

      … but then given the type of characters who seem to rise to top in England …

      Well listen to this, how does it strike you folk there over the water?

      Liked by 1 person

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