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11 November 2018

Financial Times: Do not assume the EU will give the UK time to rerun Brexit vote

The bloc has good reasons not to extend the March 29 deadline for withdrawal, writes Wolfgang Münchau.

MPs who think about voting against a withdrawal treaty to force a second referendum would have to make a careful judgment of the EU’s intentions. The EU cannot decide on its own to extend the deadline. The UK government would have to request it. Extension would require a unanimous vote by the other 27 members. If the UK government itself does not want it, it is over.

The key issue that will inform the EU’s position is whether there is a withdrawal agreement on the table or not. The two sides have been converging on an all-UK customs arrangement with an independent review mechanism. The two sides are finally negotiating in earnest.

If a deal is agreed, the next step would be a vote in the UK parliament. If parliament ratifies the deal, Brexit will go ahead. If parliament were to require a few more days or weeks to complete the process, the EU would almost certainly accept a short technical extension of the Article 50 divorce treaty. I doubt it would be needed.

But what if the UK parliament rejects it? Or if it attaches an amendment to the bill, making final approval subject to a referendum? 

To discourage a ratification failure, the European Council will collude with UK prime minister Theresa May when they agree a deal. At that point both sides will need to frame the ratification vote as a take-it-or-leave-it choice. They both want to increase its chances of passing. The EU in particular will want to discourage MPs from voting against the deal because they assume they might get a better one.

So why does the EU not co-operate more with the pro-EU forces in the UK? For starters, Remain did not win the referendum. More importantly, the British government does not back Remain. The European Council is a club of governments and its sole UK interlocutor is Mrs May, not the House of Commons, the opposition parties, or 700,000 demonstrators in London. If the UK wants the European Council to support a Brexit reversal, it will need to put another government in place — one that requests it. With less than five months to go until Brexit, this does not strike me as a high-probability event.

Furthermore, a decision to extend Article 50 would become an unwelcome campaign issue for many EU leaders in the 2019 European elections. Some are battling populist parties at home, many of whom side with the Brexiters. These parties would undoubtedly characterise a vote to extend Article 50 as an attempt to undermine democracy.

Another obstacle would be lack of clarity about the referendum itself. In a scenario where a deal is still on the table, there could be three choices: deal, no-deal Brexit, and Remain. I doubt very much that the UK parliament would find a majority to agree on the rules of engagement before the European Council takes its decision on extending Article 50. It is also far from clear how a three-way referendum could resolve the issue.


The situation would be different if there was no deal. The choices would be starker, and the referendum question more obvious. In this scenario I could see the EU being persuaded to accept an extension of Article 50. But the UK government would still have to request it, and the EU would insist that the government would back the Remain campaign. I leave it to the readers to assess the probability of this particular sequence of events: no deal, UK government switching to Remain side, Remain winning. [...]

Full article on Financial Times (subscription required)

© Financial Times

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