Monday, September 09, 2019

This may well be the EU’s last chance to avoid a no-deal Brexit. But will they take it?

Published in The Daily Telegraph
Boris Johnson's future as PM may hinge on whether he can avoid having to request a three-month extension, as required by legislation passed by a majority in Parliament. As this newspaper has reported, the Tory leader has drawn up plans to “sabotage” any Brexit extension by “send[ing] an accompanying letter alongside the request to extend Article 50 setting out that the Government does not want any delay after October 31”.
The EU will require the UK to “indicate a way forward” as a condition to granting an extension. Therefore, the UK hopes Brussels will automatically reject London's “request”, if it deliberately fails to present a concrete reason for the extension.
Legal challenges in the UK may hamper this strategy - a judge may, for example, rule that such conduct would violate the Benn legislation that forces Boris Johnson to request an extension. EU leaders might also still grant the extension, claiming that they believe a general election to be imminent, given the fact that Boris Johnson no longer has a majority. The latter would certainly be unprecedented, but these are unprecedented times.
Moreover, Brussels may now be strategising on the basis that, if they grant an extension, a Labour government, intent on stopping a no deal Brexit, could well come to power - and such a situation may work to Brussels' advantage.
One scenario they might envisage is Labour gaining power in December, perhaps propped up by other opposition parties. This would then be followed by yet another extension of UK membership, followed by a referendum where the British people would be able to vote between remaining in the EU and agreeing to a Labour-style Brexit deal, with likely more alignment than the deal Theresa May negotiated.
Crucially, Brussels is also very anxious to avoid no deal. It is true that France is threatening not to grant an extension, but - as was the case with the extension granted in Spring - this is more a game of trying to extract concessions such as the length of the extension period. Unlike last spring, President Macron no longer fears that the UK’s membership would affect the outcome of the European Parliament elections. 
Most importantly, France and other EU member states will be wary about any action that brings about a no deal against the wishes of Ireland. The latter's Minister for Finance Paschal Donohue stated today that Ireland “would be in favour of an extension that would create the space to hopefully conclude where we are”. It’s well-known that the country isn’t ready to deal with a hard border, even if the EU has now made clear it will tolerate holes in that border at least for a while.
Other European countries will be just as eager to avoid no deal. Insiders in the Port of Rotterdam admit that they’re not ready for a WTO Brexit,  as customs officers, inspection posts and lorry spaces are lacking. The Federation of German Industries (BDI) has warned a no deal Brexit would cause Germany's already weak growth to tumble to zero this year.  Never mind that this is the same BDI which trumpeted right after Boris Johnson entered office that “The Withdrawal Agreement must not be renegotiated.” In other words, the stars are aligned for an extension.
The EU should not, however, waste the time between now and 18 October by simply waiting for the extension. These may be the last weeks for them to avert a "no deal" Brexit. Extending Article 50 does not automatically stop no deal. With Boris Johnson, the EU have “the Devil they know”.  What if an extension is followed by a general election, in which Boris Johnson is obliged to back no deal in order to forge an alliance with the Brexit Party? What if the Conservatives win an absolute majority based on those pledges, and also because Boris Johnson has stepped down just before the extension, "sacrificing" his job for Brexit? These are now very real possibilities.
Therefore, the EU might want to look more seriously into what Mr Johnson is offering now. It’s hard to accuse Mr Johnson of not wanting a deal. Although the PM has moved on food checks in the Irish Sea, the EU and the Irish government have not softened their positions; they are still simply repeating that they are open to the idea of going back to the original Northern Ireland-only backstop. Some UK commentators have pointed out that due to the loss of a majority, the DUP are now “irrelevant” to Boris, so an Irish Sea border of some sort may therefore be easier. 
This may well be the EU’s last chance for a deal-based Brexit. But will they take it?

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