- Theresa May will on Thursday request a three month delay to Brexit.
- However the EU has already ruled out a delay of this length and is likely to veto any short delay unless MPs back the Brexit deal.
- There is little sign that MPs are about to change heart.
- Unless something changes Britain will leave the EU without a deal in eight days time.
LONDON – Throughout this two-year Brexit process UK politicians have repeatedly made the mistake of assuming that the EU does not mean what it says. That somehow at the eleventh hour the 27 other member states will buckle and give Britain exactly what it asks for.
Like a belief in crystal healing or fairies at the end of the garden, this belief endures despite there being no evidence in the real world to justify it.
This belief will be tested again on Thursday when EU leaders will meet to discuss whether to agree to Theresa May’s request for a three-month delay to Brexit.
At the moment the signs of that agreement are not good. Speaking on Wednesday, European Commission President Donald Tusk said that such an extension would only be agreed if MPs first back May’s Brexit deal with the EU. This was reiterated by officials in the French government who signalled that President Macron could veto any extension if Parliament fails to back a deal.
The problem is that there is very little sign that Parliament is about to do that.
On the last two times that the deal was put to parliament, it was rejected by a margin of 230 and 149 votes respectively. If it returns to the Commons again next week it will likely be defeated again.
However, the reality is that if MPs again reject May’s deal at the start of next week then the prime minister’s request for a short delay to Brexit will be refused. At that point, the EU will call an emergency summit during which they alone will decide Britain’s future.
The choice for EU leaders at that point will be either to prolong the agony of the last two years and accept a long Brexit delay of at least a year or to cut their losses and let Britain crash out without a deal next Friday.
The widespread assumption in Westminster is that the EU would grant such an extension. That whatever they say now, EU leaders would not allow a chaotic no-deal Brexit to actually take place.
However, it is far from clear that this assumption is right. Numerous senior EU figures have already made it clear that they would only allow a lengthier delay if the British government sets out a clear plan of what it wants to do with it. That means May either negotiating a different, softer, Brexit deal, or a general election, or a second referendum. It would also mean Britain taking part in the upcoming European Parliament elections.
It is possible to somehow imagine that May would agree to all of this. It is also possible to imagine that it would also all somehow be agreed by the most divided UK Parliament in living memory and then endorsed by an already weary EU 27.
But it is also possible to imagine that such agreement won’t be reached. It is possible to imagine that May will simply refuse to accept a longer delay, as she insisted on Wednesday, and move towards backing a no-deal Brexit. This is certainly what some reports now suggest she would do, and which some polls suggest many British people would support.
But would she really do this and risk all of the damage to the UK economy that such an outcome would cause? Perhaps not. However, the one constant throughout this process is that when it comes to a straight choice between prioritising the short-term needs of her party, or the long-term needs of her country, then she has chosen the former. Nothing she said yesterday evening in her statement to the nation suggests this is about to change.
If she were to choose no-deal, then at that point half the Cabinet and most of parliament would mobilise furiously to try and prevent such a chaotic exit happening.
It is possible to imagine those efforts succeeding. It is also possible to imagine those efforts failing.
An accidental no-deal Brexit?
Throughout this process, there has been a complacent assumption in Westminster that whatever happens, a no-deal Brexit will be avoided.
That assumption may well prove to be right. MPs may decide next week to finally back May’s deal – despite all of the evidence suggesting otherwise. The EU may then agree to a delay during which both houses of parliament will quickly and efficiently agree to all of the accompanying legislation that needs to pass in just a few months – despite all of the evidence suggesting that the legislation would falter.
Alternatively, May could agree a longer extension during which she calls a general election or a second referendum and changes Britain’s entire future forever – despite all of the evidence suggesting that she won’t.
So if absolutely everything goes well then Britain will be prevented from leaving without a deal both on Friday and again before the next deadline of the European Parliament elections in May.
If indeed that does happen then the widespread belief that no-deal Brexit will be averted will be proven right.
However, with just days to go until the end of the Article 50 deadline, this widespread belief could soon be tested to the point of destruction.