Macron and the European Union can’t bail out British again

Even Brexiteers are beginning to realise that the Kafkaesque nightmare is a UK problem, not a European one. The EU’s patience will run out eventually, writes Lionel Laurent.

Macron and the European Union can’t bail out British again

Even Brexiteers are beginning to realise that the Kafkaesque nightmare is a UK problem, not a European one. The EU’s patience will run out eventually, writes Lionel Laurent.

Whoever came up with the Article 50 process for leaving the EU probably never thought it would be used, let alone turned into a maddening form of procedural torture worthy of Kafka. Brexit was meant to have been wrapped up in March, yet the UK’s inability to decide what it wants has frustrated the best-laid plans of Brussels’ technocrats.

After Westminster’s three rejections of former prime minister Theresa May’s original Brexit deal, and after the EU’s two extensions of the original Brexit deadline, Boris Johnson is now in Downing Street and we’ve entered a Bizarro World where reality has been turned upside down.

    We have:

  • A new Brexit deal that the EU insists is not a renegotiation;
  • A special arrangement for the North that the UK says is not a backstop (the name of the original guarantee in May’s deal to avoid a hard border in Ireland);
  • An official British request for an extension to the October 31 deadline that Johnson says he doesn’t want.

You can imagine the EU’s 27 other leaders taking deep breaths and counting to 10. The bloc has made Herculean efforts to parry British attempts to divide its members on Brexit, and last week’s hard-fought new deal with Johnson was greeted with back-slapping relief.

Finally, the EU could get on with other issues, from a tariff war with Donald Trump’s America to tackling climate change and trying to hold a firm line on China. French president Emmanuel Macron showered Johnson in compliments, no doubt glad that seeing off the Brits — amicably, of course — would remove an obstacle to his ambitions for deeper EU integration.

Now, once again, the prospect of delay is back, and with it the threat of more contagion as Britain’s dysfunctional politics infects the orderly running of the EU and threatens that cherished unity. So what should the bloc do?

Responding hastily is in nobody’s interest. Parliament hasn’t actually voted on the new Brexit deal yet. The demand for a three-month extension was forced on Johnson by MPs as a way to make sure the Halloween deadline wouldn’t let him and his Brexiteer allies bully the House of Commons into accepting “his deal or no deal”.

Any ruling from Brussels on an extension before parliament votes on Johnson’s deal (which may happen in the next couple of days) would be seen as meddling in UK politics. Likewise, siding with Johnson by ruling out any delay would mean committing the EU to an ugly and economically damaging no-deal split on October 31 in the event that Westminster failed to rubber-stamp his deal.

If there’s not enough time to organise the vote itself before the end of October, the EU would allow an extension — it has no interest in prematurely slamming the door shut, no matter what Brexiteer ministers such as Michael Gove might say.

If MPs approve Johnson’s deal rapidly, the debate is moot. The EU would obviously give theUK time to jump through the various legislative hoops to put Brexit into law. Where things get complicated is if Westminster thwarts Macron’s plans for a quick divorce and rejects Johnson’s deal.

If the deal fails by a handful of votes, and if those votes come from Johnson’s disgruntled allies in the DUP, then Macron’s more hawkish views on an extension could hold sway. Brussels might offer only a short delay (less than the three months asked for) to try to force the last few holdout MPs into line or face a no-deal exit.

But if it becomes clear that Johnson’s deal will never get through the Commons (or is amended to death by opposition politicians) that will show the EU that Britain needs deeper political change to break the logjam. More dovish European calls for a longer extension would probably win the day.

“Time alone will not solve the problem,” said Amelie de Montchalin, France’s European affairs minister, though she added there was room for discussion on an extension of six months or so should it be needed for a UK election or second referendum.

Even though some kind of extension appears inevitable, no one should underestimate how tense this debate might become among the EU’s leaders. The situation is very different to when May was in power, when hardcore Brexiteers complained that she had done a poor job and boasted they could get a better deal from Brussels.

Brexiteers don’t blame the EU anymore for what is clearly a UK problem: Parliament’s inability to decide. Macron’s impatience with London is spreading to his fellow leaders, with Germany’s Angela Merkel talking of Britain as a post-Brexit “competitor”. There’s a point where infinite delays will be deemed costlier than no deal.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, covering Brussels.

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