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.