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The end of the line for cakeism, unicorns and cherry-picking

Fabian Zuleeg

Date: 07/06/2019

Prime Minister Theresa May is finally staggering off the political stage, admitting defeat on delivering any form of Brexit. This does not move the United Kingdom (UK) any closer to making a decision, however. On the contrary, the European Parliament elections have shown that the UK population continues to be deeply divided on Brexit. Given the internal processes of a Conservative leadership election, and with the electoral catastrophe fresh in their mind, the Conservatives are likely to elect a Eurosceptic leader who would come into office with unachievable renegotiation fantasies. Not only will any attempt at convincing Brussels to substantively change the deal be futile, but nothing has changed in the House of Commons: there is still no majority for any of the options on the table.

Between a rock and a hard place

This is not surprising: the dilemma at the heart of the Brexit process is unchanged. Once the UK decided to embark upon this path, there were no good options going forward. Delivering Brexit with no softening of the UK’s red lines implies significant economic harm and painful compromise on Northern Ireland. A very soft Brexit is equivalent to second-class membership, minimising economic costs but at the expense of even less control, becoming a rule-taker. Any deal, including May’s, will always be a compromise between these extremes and, in consequence, satisfy nobody.

This might well imply that politically speaking, the UK now faces a binary choice between ‘no deal’, and not leaving the EU after all – but revoking Article 50 and staying in the EU or holding a second referendum also carries a cost. It implies facing the wrath of Leave voters and, most likely, splitting up both the Conservative and Labour parties permanently. When faced with such unenviable choices, the instinct of politicians is not to make a decision at all.

Fear of the cliff edge

Unless there is an unavoidable decision point, such as the next scheduled General Election due in Spring 2022, the only way UK politics could be compelled to make a decision is if the alternative is even worse than the second or third preference on the table. This implies that the House of Commons will be forced to make a choice only in the event of a real and credible possibility of a no deal. They will not willingly manoeuver themselves into such a bind, implying that only the EU27 can create the conditions under which the UK must make a decision.

While there is certainly a growing unease of the EU continuing in a state of limbo – not least because of the already materialising political costs –, the member states face their own dilemma. They do not want to be held responsible for a no deal crash-out, with all the political and economic consequences this entails, including for their own country and industry. This explains why the EU27 unanimously decided to grant an extension until 31 October. More time and a new Prime Minister will not alter the UK’s quandary, however, so the EU will have to decide how to handle a request for a further extension if the UK were to ask once again.

Drawing a line in the sand

The most strategic response by the EU would be to not pre-emptively acquiesce to a further extension, but to decide at this point, in the June Summit, both the process and conditions that would make it potentially acceptable for the EU to accept a further extension and then ‘lock’ the UK in. The door should be kept open for an extension to follow any substantive or process decision, such as the need for more time to legislate for a deal reached, carrying out a second referendum or a General Election. It should also be clear, however, that no decision in autumn entails no deal, putting the ball firmly into the UK court.

One way of locking this in is to make convening a potential extraordinary summit to decide on an extension conditional on the UK having made a decision. Politically, this is in line with the last decision taken by the European Council, when they demanded the UK to use the extension time wisely. It would be a strong signal to the UK, appealing to countries like France, who, last time around, felt that they could not go against the majority, given that it could have resulted in no deal in a matter of days. Bearing in mind that any further extension needs to be agreed upon unanimously, such an approach – if collectively announced and publicly backed by the EU27 – would be credible and believable.

Standing firm

At the same time, the EU should make it clear that renegotiation or abandoning EU red lines is not in the cards. Completing the dissolution of Task Force 50 could be a signal that the deal will not be renegotiated, but a firm demand should also be made to the new Prime Minister, calling for a public commitment to the principles May had already signed up to: regardless of the outcome, UK will meet its financial obligations, protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK and meet its obligations on Northern Ireland, including guaranteeing a frictionless border. In addition, the UK must commit to non-interference in major EU decisions, including the negotiations on the next Multiannual Financial Framework. Unless these commitments are made, the EU27 should not even contemplate a further extension.

Such a firm approach, making an extension conditional on these UK commitments, is the only way to not only put the ball back into the UK court, but to also increase the pressure to make a decision. In the absence of such a process, and given a deeply polarised UK and the presence of a new Eurosceptic prime minister who will portray any further concessions of the EU27 as a sign of weakness, providing more time unconditionally will paradoxically not increase the chance for a compromise but will, in the end, result in the no-deal scenario that everyone is trying to avoid when the Union’s patience finally runs out.


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