EU should only give more time if we prepare for EU elections

by Hugo Dixon | 04.04.2019

The other 27 EU countries will run a big risk if they let us extend Article 50 and we don’t keep open the option of holding European elections. But they shouldn’t insist on anything else to delay Brexit on April 12.

The Cabinet agreed at its marathon meeting on Tuesday that the prime minister would ask the EU for a “flextension” at next Wednesday’s summit. The idea is that she would ask for a long extension, of say a year, but with the ability to cut it short at any point if we ratified an exit deal. The prime minister hopes to achieve that by May 22, meaning we wouldn’t have to hold the European Parliament elections on May 23. But the Cabinet agreed to start preparing for the elections anyway – just in case.

Given where we are, this complicated set of conclusions was quite sensible. The snag is that Theresa May didn’t say this on Tuesday night. She merely said “we will need a further extension of Article 50 – one that is as short as possible and which ends when we pass a deal”, adding that she wanted to get a deal ratified “before 22nd May so that the United Kingdom need not take part in European Parliamentary Elections.”

The prime minister didn’t mention anything about asking for a longer extension just in case and preparing for the elections – although the chancellor Philip Hammond suggested this was the plan in an interview with ITV last night. There is, therefore, a risk that May won’t stick to what she agreed in Cabinet as the backlash from hardliners in the Tory party against the softening of her policy mounts.

This wouldn’t be the first time she bows to pressure from the hard Brexiters. Last month, when the prime minister needed the first dollop of extra time, she gave the Cabinet the impression she was going to ask for a long extension – and then in the face of resignation threats from hardliners asked for only a short extension.

Twin risks of asking for short extension

There is therefore a possibility that she will just ask for a short extension until May 22 next week, telling the other leaders that she is still hopeful of getting her deal or a compromise concocted with Jeremy Corbyn through Parliament. The emergency legislation requiring her to ask for extra time that was rushed through the Commons last night and which is going through the Lords today mitigates but doesn’t eliminate this scenario.

If the prime minister were to do this, there would then be two risks.

One is that the EU will agree to extra time without us preparing for the European elections – and that the prime minister will then fail to get any deal through Parliament. We would then probably crash out of the EU with no deal on May 22 – because by then it would be too late to hold the elections and it would be extremely hard for the other leaders to give us another extension.

This would be bad both for us and the rest of the EU. The other leaders should therefore have no truck with the idea of any extension unless we at least prepare for the elections – and we need to do that no later than April 12. We can always cancel them if the prime minister, against expectations, got a deal over the line before May 22.

The other risk is that May refuses to prepare for the European elections when she asks for extra time next week – and the other leaders then refuse to give her extra time. We would then crash out on April 12. That wouldn’t be good for anybody.

To reduce that risk, the other EU leaders need to make clear that the price of any extension is to prepare for the European elections. It is a shame that Jean-Claude Juncker wasn’t clear about this when he spoke to the European Parliament yesterday. The European Commission president won’t actually have a vote on this next week. The leaders now need to make clear where they stand so that our prime minister doesn’t go into next week’s talks with false expectations of what is achievable.

Don’t insist on a roadmap

Preparing for the European elections is all they should insist on in return for extra time. It would, of course, be nice to have a clear roadmap from the prime minister about what she would do to bring the Brexit saga to a conclusion. But this is unrealistic.

Anything May promises next week will not be worth the paper it is written on. At any moment, she could be kicked out by her party and replaced by a hardline Brexiter. There might also be a general election, which the Tories could lose.

The other EU leaders should, instead, heed the moto: “Actions speak louder than words.” The mere act of holding European Parliament elections will show that things are shifting in the UK. They will be the next milestone in the long journey towards a more pro-European policy.

Polling suggests “Remainers” are much more likely to turn out and vote than “Leavers”: 55% of the former category say they are certain to vote, compared to only 40% of the latter group. May’s elections could therefore be a great moment for pro-European Brits to build on the momentum of last month’s fantastic march – and an important staging post towards a new referendum on whether we want Brexit at all.

If, after mature reflection, the UK decides it wishes to stay in the EU, this will send a powerful message across Europe that populism is bankrupt and that the European vision is alive and kicking. This is a prize worth fighting for.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “EU should only give more time if we prepare for EU elections”

  • Agreed.
    Meanwhile the BBC and the media need get into the habit of NOT calling a new public vote ‘a second referendum’. That name suggests that the same choice as voters were presented with in 2016 will be presented to them another time. It can be called a referendum (as presumably legislation for it will require). But if so, call it a referendum on the UK/EU exit deal (or something). The vote should be held only when voters are informed of what leaving the EU would mean in practice. And the electorate has to be aware (a) that a deal of the sort which some Leave campaigners had imagined, but had no plan for, was impossible to strike, and (b) that Parliament wasn’t able to approve the terms of the possible deal that the Prime Minister had tried to strike.
    + I fear that the name ‘People’s Vote’ might suggest that all the arguments for holding one came from so-called Remoaners.