1 April 2019

As the House of Commons once again rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement on 29 March, European Council President Donald Tusk called for a special Brexit summit to take place on 10 April, in order to consider the next steps.

According to the conclusions agreed at the Council summit in March, in case the deal is rejected once again, the UK is expected to “indicate a way forward” before 12 April, the new Brexit “cliff-edge date.” As Tusk said, “Before that day, the UK still has a choice of a deal, No Deal, a long extension or revoking Article 50.”

As the current Government does not intend to revoke Article 50, three main scenarios remain: An exit with a deal, a longer extension, or No Deal. How does the EU evaluate these options?

A deal

The preferred option for the EU remains the UK Parliament eventually passing the Withdrawal Agreement.

EU leaders have stated multiple times that the Withdrawal Agreement itself will not be renegotiated. However, the EU is open to making changes to the non-binding Political Declaration. It could agree to the option of the UK seeking a “softer” Brexit option, if a majority of MPs would vote for this alternative in another series of indicative votes. EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Friday,

We are ready to be even more ambitious, should the UK’s red lines evolve. For instance, we are open to work on the principle of a permanent customs union should the UK decide to take this path.

EU officials have suggested that the Political Declaration could be changed very quickly if the option of a permanent customs union would need to be added, and if this would help the UK to ratify the agreement and leave in an orderly way.

As the European Parliament’s Brexit Co-Ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, said, “What we expect is that a proposal could reach a majority around the customs union and then we are prepared, on the EU side, to renegotiate the [Political Declaration] and to include that customs union therein…That new Political Declaration can then be approved at the European summit on April 10 and then we will give the British the opportunity to formalise it in English legislation by May 22.”

A longer extension

Tusk himself has shown personal support for the option of a longer extension, but is his view shared by EU27 governments?

Should the UK demand for a longer extension (beyond 22 May), EU leaders could compromise and accept, but on a set of clear conditions.

  • The UK will have to hold European Parliament elections on 23-26 May. The Government has agreed to this condition in the previous Council conclusions. Claiming that there could be a “way through this,” as Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry did last week, would be misleading. It will be problematic for the EU if the UK stays a member until June, but then decides to stay longer or revoke Article 50. This goes against EU law and would affect the functioning of the European Parliament.
  • If the UK accepts holding elections, it will be expected to provide a reason why it needs so much time – likely to be either a general election or a second referendum, two scenarios which require several months to implement.
  • Moreover, as the EU is also worried about the UK having a seat at the table when crucial decisions will be made, it is likely to informally ask for the UK to abstain from discussions about the future of the EU, specifically the long-term budget for 2021-2027.

No Deal

This scenario remains one that the EU want to avoid. Publicly, EU27 officials continue to commit to an orderly Brexit. Polish European Affairs Minister Konrad Szymański last week said the Union would give “as much as possible” time so that the UK Parliament can “determine its opinion and agree the terms of Brexit.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said that the “EU should make sure that every other option has been exhausted before accepting a No Deal Brexit.”

However, recent reports also suggest that in private, many EU officials now consider No Deal to be a less costly option than extending uncertainty, as they do not trust May’s ability to pass the deal through the Commons.

Many are worried about Brexit uncertainty becoming a long-term issue and its effect on European elections. There is concern about the success of Eurosceptic and populist parties across Europe, so the prospect of having MEPs from the Brexit Party does not look particularly attractive. Of course, there are already 41 UKIP and Conservative MEPs in the current European Parliament, but the idea of them continuing to take part in discussions about the future of the Union is not welcome.

EU27 positions on a longer Brexit delay remain divided. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, is named as one of the leaders asking whether there is a point in delaying Brexit much longer. Meanwhile, Merkel is said to be one of those arguing to give more time.

The EU claims it sees No Deal as a real possibility. But despite public statements from Barnier and others, it is not fully prepared for the UK leaving without an agreement. The most important issue remains what happens to the Irish border. This week, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar will meet with Macron and Merkel, who are likely to press him on the preparations for the border in case of No Deal, and demand guarantees that the Single Market will be protected. With this uncertainty, it is unlikely the EU will choose No Deal on 12 April.

Will the EU27 be able to reconcile their positions on 10 April?

Ultimately, even though there is less and less opposition to No Deal due to May’s inability to get the agreement through, it will be politically difficult for the EU27 to justify choosing this scenario over a longer extension. Last time, no leader was in principle opposed to an extension and as it stands today, no member state seems to be willing to go against the consensus, even if some are expressing doubts.

In March, despite internal disagreements, EU leaders managed to set out two important dates (12 April and 22 May), as well as conditions that apply to both dates. A similar tactic could be employed in April – and the UK should be prepared to face the conditions if it chooses to delay Brexit for longer.