Brexit could be delayed until May as UK changes strategy

Brexit could be delayed until May as UK changes strategy

Angela Merkel visited the Republic of Ireland on Thursday ahead of next Wednesday’s special European Council summit of presidents and prime ministers on Brexit. The visit came amidst UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s latest U-turn to explore a cross- party deal on Brexit, and her decision to ask Brussels for a further extension of the so-called Article 50 process to May 22. 

The reason for Merkel’s important visit was a show of solidarity with Dublin amidst the continuing possibility that the UK could leave the Brussels-based club with no deal next Friday, unless the EU-27 unanimously offer an extension — albeit potentially of a different length to the one London now seeks. Merkel on Wednesday said: “I have always said I will fight until the last minute of the respective date for an orderly Brexit — that’s in the interests of Britain but is above all also in our interests.”

Despite this, a disorderly exit next week cannot be completely dismissed, even though the House of Commons passed on Wednesday the so-called Cooper amendment to try to eliminate this prospect. Yet, the news from London and Brussels has appeared brighter this week.

In what May called a “decisive moment for the future of these islands,” after a marathon seven-hour Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, she began a series of meetings on Wednesday with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. While these talks may go nowhere, the PM has signaled she may now be willing — almost three years after the original referendum — to bend on her previous “red lines” to secure a cross-party deal.

May made it clear that she still does not want to compromise on a new Brexit referendum, or so-called People’s Vote. But she implicitly indicated she might, potentially, move toward a “softer” exit based around a customs union and/or a closer relationship with the European Single Market (short of the UK’s current full membership).

Those who voted to leave did so for diverse and sometimes divergent reasons, which makes fashioning support for an exit agreement very difficult.

Andrew Hammond

This has infuriated those Brexiteers who will only countenance the hardest of exits from the EU. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who could yet become May’s successor, asserted that “the prime minister and Cabinet have concluded that any deal is better than no deal, and this is truly a very bad deal indeed — one that leaves us being run by the EU.”

What May also made clear, for now at least, is that she still wants the UK to leave the EU no later than May 22 so that the nation does not have to take part in next month’s European Parliament elections. This, however, creates a potential time bomb as, unless the UK participates in those ballots, it seems increasingly plausible that there can be no further Article 50 extension beyond May 22, whether or not a deal is agreed before then. In this sense, the Brexit can may not be able to be “kicked down the road” any further.

If the May-Corbyn talks collapse, May said she would facilitate a further round of indicative votes to try to forge a parliamentary consensus around a clear Brexit proposition. At the same time, she indicated her own withdrawal deal — which has already been voted down three times — will not be brought back for a fourth meaningful vote this week.

The apparent change in Brexit strategy by May has been cautiously welcomed in Brussels. President of the European Council Donald Tusk, for instance, tweeted on Tuesday: “Even if, after today, we don’t know what the end result will be, let us be patient.”

Yet, while Tusk was positive, others across the EU are skeptical that an additional short extension will be enough to forge the consensus ideally needed across the UK on Brexit. The EU-27 are well aware of continuing disagreement within the populace and political elites. 

And, as Johnson’s comments underline, this is not just a leave versus remain debate, given the intra-faction disagreements even within those favoring Brexit. A challenge here is that those who voted to leave in 2016 did so for diverse and sometimes divergent reasons, which makes fashioning support for an exit agreement very difficult.

The continuing divisions within the electorate are underlined in polls that now generally show more people favoring EU membership than not, and the country split over whether maintaining full access to the European Single Market (akin to a Norway-style softer deal) or being able to limit migration (as a Canada-style harder deal would allow) should be the key objective. 

In terms of May’s position as prime minister, she looks now to be secure at least until next week’s EU summit. Nonetheless, her critics, such as the maverick Johnson, are circling and biding their time before striking. 

Her growing band of critics knows she remains in a politically precarious position, with massive Brexit challenges still unresolved. They are aware Parliament, and the nation at large, remains badly divided and could still be heading toward a disorderly exit with no withdrawal deal agreed on either April 12 or later in the spring. In this sense, this week’s latest political drama may have only kicked the can down the road, with the UK potentially remaining in Brexit gridlock for some time to come.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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