Richard North, 10/04/2019  
 


Rather as predicted, events on the Brexit extension front have coalesced earlier than today – reinforcing the preparatory role of the General Affairs Council in setting up the agendas for the European Council.

Thus, by the end of play yesterday, we had a pretty good idea of how things were shaping up, after George Ciamba, Romanian Minister Delegate for European Affairs, declared:
The letter of Prime Minister May includes a welcome commitment by the UK to organise European elections for any extension going beyond 22 May. This is an essential element. But important questions remain unanswered at this stage. In order to decide on a further extension, EU leaders will need clarity from the UK about its purpose.
As to Barnier, he was unequivocal in stating that the EU needed a "roadmap", but he accepted that the cross-party discussions in the UK were a "new element". The expectations and hope was that these would conclude with a positive result.

Nevertheless, Barnier said, the only way to achieve an orderly exit was by ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement, which was not going to be reopened or renegotiated. Any extension had to serve a purpose, to ensure that the political process could be "crowned with success".

A no-deal would never be a decision taken by the EU, he added, later confirming this in a Tweet. It would always be the "responsibility of the UK" to say what it wanted. The UK could revoke the notification if it wanted, but if it sought to avoid a no-deal situation it had to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement.

This brought into play a remarkably detailed (and candid) invitation letter from Donald Tusk to the European Council members, setting out the parameters for the meeting. Given the risks posed by a no-deal Brexit for people and businesses on both sides of the English Channel, Tusk wrote, "I trust that we will continue to do our utmost to avoid this scenario", thereby proposing that Mrs May's request for an extension should be considered.

However, he went on, "our experience so far, as well as the deep divisions within the House of Commons, give us little reason to believe that the ratification process can be completed by the end of June".

Thus, to grant Mrs May's request for 30 June would, he said, "increase the risk of a rolling series of short extensions and emergency summits, creating new cliff-edge dates". This, in turn, would almost certainly overshadow the business of the EU-27 in the months ahead. The continued uncertainty would also be bad for our businesses and citizens.

Also of concern was the risk, if they failed to agree on any next extension, of an accidental no-deal Brexit. And this was why Mr Tusk believed the Council should discuss an alternative, longer extension. One possibility would be a flexible extension, which would last only as long as necessary and no longer than one year.

Flexibility, Tusk said, would allow termination of the extension automatically, as soon as both sides have ratified the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK would be free to leave whenever it is ready. And the EU-27 would avoid repeated Brexit summits.

Importantly, a long extension would provide more certainty and predictability by removing the threat of constantly shifting cliff-edge dates. Furthermore, in the event of a continued stalemate, such a longer extension would allow the UK to rethink its Brexit strategy.

There lies the baseline for today's discussions which will begin at 6pm with an exchange with European Parliament president. The "colleagues" will then listen to Mrs May before dinner where only the 27 will be present. There, they will agree a response to the United Kingdom's request – leaving Mrs May to eat pizza in an ante-room – releasing their deliberations to a press conference later in the evening.

Already, draft conclusions have been leaked to the media, which suggest that the UK will be given an extension. At worst, the cut-off will be 1 June if the UK has failed to hold European elections, but otherwise it will be allowed an unspecified period "to allow for the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement".

The actual period has been left blank for the Council to fill in today, with the possibility that it can run on to the end of this year, or the end of March 2020. There will also be conditions imposed which prevent the UK from undermining the operation of the EU's institutions. Mr Tusk's flexibility will be permitted, with the extension period ending earlier if the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified.

Meanwhile, Mrs May has been out and about, meeting first Angela Merkel and then Emmanuel Macron, each being asked to support an extension to 30 June – the period, coincidentally, required by a motion mandated by the fatuous Cooper Act which was approved in the leak-free Commons by 420 votes to 110.

That the MP collective ended up with the same date that Mrs May intends to request rather proves Cooper's efforts to have been a colossal waste of time, especially as the European Council intends to ignore it anyway.

But parliament is not alone in wasting its time. Mrs May's shuttle diplomacy may also prove to have been completely futile as it is said that the French president is minded to reject Tusk's preferred solution and go for an extended period with rolling reviews linked to "good behaviour" clauses, with a "sudden death" Brexit if conditions are not observed.

Whatever it decides, once the European Council has delivered its verdict, UK media attention will very quickly shift to the domestic political scene, where its comfort zone resides. Mrs May will be seen to be under considerable pressure to resign, having said she could not "as prime minister" accept a longer delay than 30 June.

Even then, four cabinet ministers and "more than half" of Conservative MPs are said to reject any extension at all. Going further than 30 June can only increase the divisions within the party.

That said, the "colleagues" are unwavering in their commitment to the Withdrawal Agreement, which puts a huge amount of pressure on the talks with Labour – without which there is little hope of getting the deal through parliament, if indeed there is any at all.

But then, if Mrs May does come to an agreement with Corbyn on the fabled "customs union", she could face renewed pressure to resign from her backbenchers. "Between the Devil and the deep blue sea", might be an adequate description of her predicament.

A sign of the nastiness that is infiltrating the discourse then came at a Bruges Group meeting, where audience members shouted "fuck government" and repeatedly yelling "traitor!" at the mention of Mrs May. Previously quite sensible people seems to have lost any sense of perspective, while rationality has long since disappeared.

On that basis, it is very hard to see how Mrs May or any Tory prime minister can conclude an arrangement with Corbyn and, even if that was possible, there is absolutely no certainty that there will be any success in getting the Withdrawal Agreement through parliament, even with the support of the Labour leadership.

Inexorably, therefore, we seem to be sliding towards a situation where any hope of a deal is taken off the table, leaving only the option of no-deal or the unthinkable no-Brexit, with Mrs May or her successor revoking the Article 50 notification.

One presumes a hard-line successor to Mrs May might go for the no-deal, after abandoning the Corbyn talks, but a lengthy extension might give room for a general election or even a referendum. What does not seem tenable is another nine months to a year of instability, with the Conservatives tearing themselves apart and the political system generally continuing to disintegrate.

On the other hand, we could well be past the point of no return. The political establishment has been confronted with a task that is beyond its capabilities to deal with. It is so out of its depth that it can't even admit to itself its level of incompetence, and must continue trying to convince the nation that things are under control.

Thus, the worse it gets, the greater the denial until the system implodes. Eventually, if there is to be any resolution, it will have to be the non-decision of the no-deal.

But who will then rebuild the wreckage of our political system is not easy to fathom. In a parliament inhabited by intellectual pygmies, there is no obvious leader waiting in the wings, ready to take over responsibility. This is not May 1940. Unfortunately, it is Mrs May, 2019.






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