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The Show Must Go On: Understanding the Brexit Theatre

The Show Must Go On: Understanding the Brexit Theatre

Federico Fabbrini (Director, DCU Brexit Institute)

Thirty Days. This is what’s left before the default exit of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU). But the fans of the Brexit show have by now got used to coups de theatre – and more may be coming. Just in the past days, the UK Government postponed another crucial vote on the withdrawal deal, the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn endorsed the option of a second referendum, and the Prime Minister Theresa May opened the door to an extension of Article 50 TEU, which would allow the UK to remain in the EU for extra time beyond 29 March.

The process of UK withdrawal from the EU remains therefore ripe with uncertainties. And yet, a few features of the play appear by now consolidated – hinting at alternative scenarios ahead.

This much we know. First, the EU is not open to any kind of re-negotiation of the withdrawal agreement, and changes are only possible to the outline political declaration on the future EU-UK relations. Second, organizing a second referendum in the UK would take circa six months, and hence require an extension of UK membership in the EU. And yet, a UK request to extend Article 50 would create a headache for the European Council, since at the end of May there will be European Parliament elections and in all honesty the EU 27 cannot conceive having 73 UK-elected MEPS (the third largest delegation) in the new European Parliament.

And this explains the strategy which key players in the game have been following so far. In particular, Prime Minister Theresa May is consistently seeking to push the crunch moment to the eleventh hour, when she will be able to force Westminster to choose either the deal she negotiated or have no deal. While she denied that her strategy is to run down the clock, May’s action – including the futile efforts at renegotiations in Brussels and the decision to postpone (again) a vote on the deal – confirm that this is exactly what she is doing to have it her way.

Ironically, the decision of the Leader of the Opposition to endorse the option of a new referendum now strengthens the Prime Minister strategy, as Eurosceptic members of the Conservative party could now start to be concerned that Brexit may never happen – and thus conclude that backing May’s deal and leaving the EU is better than risking a second vote loosing Brexit. But Labour’s new stance, also complicates things for the Prime Minister as the promise of a second referendum reduces the incentive for the more Euro-friendly members of the opposition to cross the aisle and come in support of the withdrawal deal struck by the Tories.

In this context it remains to be seen what the position of the EU institutions will be. As mentioned, both European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claud Juncker have excluded the possibility to reopen the withdrawal agreement, but both have signalled flexibility on the outline political declaration. In fact, while the EU does not want a disorderly exit, it is probably true to say that they also do not want Brexit to carry out too long – as this is inevitably consuming the energy of the EU and distracting from other, more important issues which the 27 Member States have to settle between themselves. In this context, the EU may be ready to make enough changes to the political declaration to allow May’s a save face and call for a second successful parliamentary vote on the deal in March.

But whatever happens in the short term it is clear that Brexit is not going to be easily solved one way or another – even if we had a magic wand. The decision to leave the EU is such a dramatic and divisive event that no efforts at quick resolution can succeed. In other words, the British question – what relations the UK wants with Europe? – will continue to hunt us. And as a result, also the specular problem, the European question – what we want the EU for? – will remain with us for long. But for now, back to the day to day theatre: the show must go on!

Federico Fabbrini is Full Professor of European law at the School of Law & Government of DCU and the Principal of the Brexit Institute. He holds a PhD in Law from the European University Institute and previously had academic positions in the Netherlands and Denmark. He recently wrote an In-Depth Analysis, requested by the AFCO Committee of the European Parliament, on The Institutional Consequences of a ‘Hard Brexit’.

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