For Europe, Hell Is Two More Years of Brexit

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For some British politicians, the idea of delaying Brexit – even if it means averting the economic self-harm of crashing out of the EU without a deal – is an outrage. 

One of Prime Minister Theresa May’s ministers has quit over the prospect of a parliamentary vote on extending the Brexit process if a deal can’t be approved in time, calling it a “humiliation.” Arch-Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg says it smacks of a “plot to stop Brexit” and would undermine democracy. Bluster aside, they may have a point. If there’s one thing both the U.K. and Europe should agree on, it’s the danger of a long Brexit delay.

Extending the two-year process for negotiating the terms of Brexit beyond the current March 29 deadline would make sense if it meant avoiding an outcome that neither side wants, or intends, to happen. If May’s withdrawal deal were to win parliamentary approval later this month, there would obviously be no objection to a short technical extension to avoid unforeseen hiccups. Likewise, if parliament voted down her deal but requested a one-off delay of a few months, it would be hard for the EU to refuse. No European leader wants the blame for rushing into the abyss of a no-deal Brexit, which would damage the continent too.

The problems start when toying with the idea of a much longer extension. Bloomberg News’s Ian Wishart reported last month that one option mulled by the EU was delaying the departure date until 2021. While dismissed by some as a scare tactic, some member states are clearly open to kicking the can down the road for a year or two. The benefits would be twofold: The EU’s members would dodge a no-deal scenario and the U.K. parliament would have time to go back to the drawing board. If May’s vision of Brexit isn’t working, perhaps other ideas – a customs union? copying Norway? not leaving at all? – might gain traction.

But this faith in time being a healer hasn’t been supported by recent events in Britain. Votes in the House of Commons last week showed there was no majority for the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative Brexit plan, including a permanent customs union with the EU. Norway-style access to Europe’s single market is also opposed by both the Conservative and Labour parties. We’re two years on from triggering Article 50, the countdown to March 29th. If there’s no parliamentary majority now for May’s deal, the idea that more time can create a new consensus in a divided U.K. looks like a fantasy worthy of J.K. Rowling.

The Harry Potter author is herself a supporter of a second referendum – or People’s Vote, as some remainers call it – and the europhobic Corbyn has reluctantly thrown his weight behind that option after failing to win parliament’s backing for his customs union approach. But there’s no majority among lawmakers for this choice either, let alone any certainty that the result would be any different.

A long delay to Brexit might also lead to fresh elections in the U.K., but again there’s no guarantee that this would break the gridlock. The last national vote in 2017 merely made it harder for any particular Brexit option to succeed. It would be highly risky for Brussels to bet on a post-May era for British politics before Westminster does.

The EU needs to accept the fact that any significant delay would be an own goal for the bloc. Over the next six to eight months, a new European Parliament will be elected and a new European Commission appointed. For Britain still to be involved in these decisions, even on a purely symbolic basis, is hugely distracting. At best, it would confuse citizens – one survey by Euronews found 28 percent of French and Italian people thought the U.K. had already left the EU – and clog up the gears of EU institutions that have plenty of other fires to fight. At worst, it will encourage the U.K. to keep trying to divide Europe and unpick the threads of the agreed deal. Georgina Wright, of the Institute for Government, warns that France and Spain might be tempted to reopen the agreement to extract more national advantages.

With luck, talk of a delay will encourage the hardline Brexiters among May’s lawmakers to grab her deal “with both hands,” as Kenneth Armstrong, Professor of European Law at Cambridge University, puts it. But even if the fear of “Brexiternity” doesn’t sway Rees-Mogg and his chums, the EU should quit while it’s ahead.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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