Welcome to Brexit purgatory, which on Friday started to look like it might last even longer than previously thought possible. With the U.K. set to depart the EU in exactly one week and no agreement in Parliament on what the relationship between the two should look like after the breakup, Prime Minister Theresa May formally requested from Brussels another extension to the Brexit deadline, proposing a new drop dead date of June 30.
Today in Desperation: Will Brussels agree to the 11-week extension for the U.K. to try again to reach consensus on a deal? It looks increasingly like not. The British prime minister requested the very same June 30 extension the first time around, and the EU shot it down, opting for a shorter reprieve. It appears likely to say no again, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be an extension of some kind. European Council President Donald Tusk is pushing a full-year extension! He’s pitching it as a “flextension,” meaning that the U.K. would have the full year to come to some sort of decision but could pull out earlier if it got its act together. In this scenario, the U.K. is a harried student begging a teacher (the EU) for one more day after pulling an all-nighter to finish an essay—and failing. And the teacher, after taking a look at the state of the paper, replies: “How about you take a week. Trust me, you’ll need it.”
Today’s Emergency: What now? EU and U.K. leaders are scheduled to meet for an emergency summit Wednesday that will almost certainly revolve around the terms of an extension, rather than the nature of Britain’s exit. It is not a certainty, however, that the EU will grant an extension at all. There are rumblings from within the European member states, the loudest coming from France, that granting another extension won’t do anything other than kick the can down the road—yet again. It’s a hard argument to counter considering the lethargic pace of the Brexit negotiations until a deadline focused the mind. Those deadlines haven’t yet produced any new results, but they have sufficiently motivated British parliamentarians to engage on the issue.
Today’s Reminder This Is Still a Negosh: It’s important to remember that Brexit is a negotiation, and rumblings from France, for instance, could be a “bad cop” routine, serving as a stick to keep the U.K. moving. The European Union’s line has generally been that it would like the U.K. to stay as closely aligned with the bloc as possible, and as the deadline nears, British parliamentarians have been drifting toward a more centrist compromise that would see the country more closely aligned than even under May’s negotiated withdrawal. Would the EU want to halt this momentum just to prove a point about deadlines? Seems unlikely.
The brinkmanship of sticking to the current April 12 deadline or bust, without the ability to grant some sort of extension, might help keep British leaders on task. But it also makes very real the chance that the U.K. would be unable to come to an internal agreement about its future relationship with the EU and would leave the bloc with no deal at all. A no-deal Brexit, which would see the country revert to WTO trade rules, is favored by a sizable and vocal portion of the right wing of British politics. This non-negotiated style of Brexit, however, is seen as carrying substantial economic risks, as it would essentially rip the U.K. economy from the European economy in one week’s time, requiring new customs arrangements, trade deals, and on and on. The operating assumption is that the EU will do what it takes to avoid that scenario, even grant an extension that perhaps wasn’t exactly earned.
Today’s Lame Duck: Complicating matters on Friday’s extension request is the fact that European parliamentary elections are set to be held on May 23. That puts the U.K. in the potentially awkward position of going to the polls to elect representatives to a government they don’t plan participating in, long-term. May has assured Brussels the country will go through the steps to hold the election, a move that has laid the groundwork for a longer extension. From the EU’s point of view, having lame duck British MEPs isn’t all that appealing for the obvious reason that they may have different long- and short-term interests on matters before the European Parliament. This may seem like a far-fetched threat of internal sabotage by British MEPs should Brexit negotiations stretch on through another session of parliament in Europe, but it’s one that right-wing pro-Brexit MP Jacob Rees-Mogg made explicitly on Friday.
Will that happen? We’re not there yet. Rees-Mogg, like many other so-called Brexiteers, favors a hard Brexit, which is seen as more likely if no extension is granted.
Days left until next deadline: Still 7! But watch this space.