11 April 2019

The EU’s latest Brexit extension offer was more about protecting the EU than helping the UK to sort itself out, writes Georgina Wright

Instead of acceding to the PM’s request for a single extension to 30 June, the EU has offered two dates: a longer extension to 31 October, but a cut off on 31 May if the UK fails to hold European Parliament elections. That offer was shorter than the one floated by Donald Tusk and shorter than many members states were prepared to offer, but longer than the date requested by Theresa May. And was only made after five hours of intense talks So why was this where the 27 landed? The latest Brexit summit has simply delayed the UK’s decision of how and when it wants to leave the EU to another day.

The EU’s offer was more about protecting the EU than about helping the UK

The EU had warned that the UK would only get an extension if it had a plan. Nothing suggests the Prime Minister convinced them on that score. Instead, uppermost in EU leaders’ minds was how to avoid both the consequences of no deal – particularly in Ireland, the subject of high level diplomacy in the run-up to the Council –  and the risk of the UK messing up the EU’s internal workings.

The Council Conclusions suggest that the EU27 changed tack. Instead of pressing the UK for a plan, the Council looked at options to prevent Brexit from dominating the EU agenda. That is why the PM’s 30 June date was consigned to the dustbin. Ensuring that the UK leaves on 31 May if it does not go through with EU Parliament elections would avoid the UK interfering with the EU elections cycle, while any longer delay requires both the UK to take part in EU elections and act in “sincere cooperation”. If the UK is obstructive in other areas of EU policy, the EU27 retains the right to terminate the extension early.

Limiting the extension to October removes the risk of UK interference in key EU debates

Although the European Parliament elections take place in May, the new EU Commissioners will only take up their role later in the Autumn. By selecting 31 October as the deadline, the EU27 allow the current UK Commissioner – Sir Julian King – to continue to serve as British Commissioner. This avoids the need to appoint another Brit in the next EU Commission, while also leaving the ongoing discussion in the EU about whether to reduce the number of EU Commissioners to another day. The October deadline also makes sure that the UK will not be an EU member when the EU budget for the next seven years is voted on and adopted.

No deal ball is back in the UK’s court

The extension may have removed the imminent risk of no deal – but it has not taken it off the table. The Council Conclusions are adamant that the only way to take no deal off the table is to either pass the Withdrawal Agreement (unchanged) or stop the Brexit process all together. Interestingly, the Council Conclusions make clear that the UK would have the right to revoke Article 50 during the extension, but they also recognise that there is still a possibility that UK leaves with no deal – on 1 June or later if a longer extension fails to pressurise MPs in the UK to back a deal. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, warned the UK “not to waste any time”. Just as in March, the EU is making sure that the UK would carry the blame for a no deal Brexit – something UK opinion seems to accept.

The final offer was a compromise where all EU27 were winners

While the latest Brexit summit has simply delayed the UK’s decision of how and when it wants to leave the EU to another day. As is the case with most EU discussions, the outcome was inevitably a compromise. Offering two choices for an extension will please both those who wanted a short extension and those who preferred a longer delay. It avoids the discussion of whether a new EU Commission should include a representative from a departing country, while also leaving the door open for EU27 members to make appointments to new posts. That means an intriguing Brexit subplot may yet be played out: President of the European Commission Michel Barnier, anyone?