Towards a New Cliff Edge in May?
Larissa Brunner and Fabian Zuleeg (European Policy Centre)
While the outcome of Brexit remains unclear after yet more turbulence in the UK Parliament, what appears more or less certain is that the UK is unlikely to leave the EU on 29 March, though a no deal exit on that date is still the default scenario. But if there is an extension, what length and for what purpose would it make sense for the EU27?
On the cliff edge?
Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal suffered a second defeat on 12 March, when it was rejected by a margin of 149 votes – less bad than the first defeat in January, when she lost by 230 votes, but still a devastating setback for her Brexit strategy. On the following two days, Parliament voted against leaving the EU with no deal and in favour of the government requesting a short, technical extension if the withdrawal agreement has been agreed by 20 March, to pass all necessary Brexit-related legislation, and a potentially much longer delay if the deal has not passed.
The EU would probably not reject a request for an extension outright as it would not want to be blamed for the negative consequences of the UK crashing out without a deal on 29 March. However, it is not a foregone conclusion that it will agree to any option: it all depends on the length and purpose of the extension.
Risks of a long extension
A technical extension, to implement a decision taken by the UK, would most likely be relatively straightforward and end before the date of the European Parliament (EP) elections (23-26 May). However, if in the absence of a decision the UK government wants to hold a second referendum or an early general election, the EU would have to grant a longer, political extension. But this 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 point has been the issue of legal debate, but the balance of opinion is that the UK would indeed have to participate if it is still a member state on May 23-26. Though some have argued that the EU could find an arrangement that would avoid UK participation, the EU cannot set up a deal that would potentially break EU law and almost certainly be challenged before the European Court of Justice.
UK participation would affect the configuration of the EP 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 seats are redistributed before it is certain that the UK has left in time, and if the UK then participates, one option would be for these member states to retrospectively give up their claim. Such option might be both technically difficult as it would require changing domestic election laws and politically contentious if the UK still leaves after a few months. An alternative would 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. Leave and Remain could effectively turn the European elections into a quasi-referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU. 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, granting a long extension would remove the EU’s, as well as May’s, leverage to push for a deal now or within a short extension period with a fixed end point. The Withdrawal Agreement or any other decision has the best chance of getting through the UK Parliament if MPs face a binary choice, staring down the cliff edge: this solution, or a chaotic no-deal exit. Removing the immediate threat of no deal would mean giving up this leverage.
Third, 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 long 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.
Fourth, it would mean that the UK would continue to participate in EU decision-making, allowing it to block decisions that require unanimity and disrupt the EU’s agenda. The EU would be powerless to prevent this. Though it could seek a gentleman’s agreement with the UK government, this would be unenforceable or fail to constitute a credible commitment as it would not bind UK MEPs.
Fifth, the possibility of a revocation of Article 50 during the extension could be a stepping stone for a new debate about Brexit in the UK. The government might be tempted to revoke Article 50 to buy time and avoid no deal, simply to re-reverse Brexit at a later date. Such a drawn-out process could consume the EU’s resources and attention for years to come, at a time when the EU has several other crises to deal with.
Given these risks, the EU would need a compelling reason to agree to a long extension, such as to give the UK time to hold a general election or a people’s vote. However, the reality is that for both options the numbers in Parliament are not there. A substantive extension would most likely 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.
A short delay?
A more likely scenario is a short, technical extension that ends before the EP elections. It would avoid the complications associated with UK participation in the EP elections. Moreover, only granting a short extension might allow the EU to contain the leverage and signaling risks associated with any extension, assuming it manages to keep the pressure up on the UK and convince the UK public and Parliament that there will be no further concessions or extensions. To address the problem of the EU’s credibility in the UK, the EP elections can act as a hard deadline for a further extension would be politically much costlier if everything is set up for the UK not to take part.
There is also the question of the purpose of a short extension. It would change nothing about the fundamental options available to the UK. However, aside from allowing the EU to avoid blame for a no deal outcome, it might focus MPs’ minds. Assuming the EU can credibly commit to not granting another extension, MPs might finally realise how close the country is to the Brexit cliff edge and that the only way of avoiding a catastrophic no deal outcome is to vote for one of the solutions on the table, however far removed from their ideal outcome it may be.
Larissa Brunner is a Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre, working primarily on Brexit. She holds a BA in Economics and Management from the University of Oxford and a Double Master’s degree in European and International Relations from Sciences Po, Paris, and Fudan University, Shanghai. Before joining the EPC, Larissa worked as Western Europe Analyst for Oxford Analytica in the United Kingdom.
Fabian Zuleeg is Chief Executive of the European Policy Centre. Fabian holds a PhD on the political economy of EU accession from Edinburgh University. Before coming to the European Policy Centre, he has worked as an economic analyst in academia, the public and the private sector. He is currently Honorary Fellow at the Europa Institute of the University of Edinburgh and Honorary Professor at Heriot Watt University. His research focuses on the economic and Euro crises, including the reform of the new economic governance at Eurozone level. He has also a long-standing interest in the political economy of European integration, with a particular focus on the UK-EU relationship, analysing the impact of Brexit on the UK and the rest of the EU, as well as the process of separation. He was appointed to the Standing Council on Europe, established by Scotland’s First Minister after the Brexit vote in June 2016.