European advocates of a long Brexit extension fall into two distinct categories. The first are those who have not thought it through to the end. These people, unsurprisingly, are the majority. The second are those who have thought it through, and who are willing to inflict collateral damage. I would like to shed some light on the latter category — and on the damage.
A long extension to the date on which the UK is due to leave the EU, to beyond June this year, would almost certainly require that the country participates in the European elections, which are scheduled for May 23-26. Before sleepwalking into a long extension, the members of the European Council and the EU27 heads of state and government should consider the following.
The first consideration is that the EU would open itself up to accusations of undue interference if it were to demand a rerun of the referendum in exchange for agreeing to a long extension. Any such move may even inadvertently trigger a no-deal Brexit on March 29.
Some advocates of a second referendum are seeking to spin the current impasse out until parliament faces a cliff-edge; if they succeed MPs would be forced to decide between a second referendum and a no-deal Brexit at the very last moment. But there are risks: parliament might not approve a second referendum even when held at gunpoint. Or the UK government could frustrate such a course of action. A parliamentary vote does not override existing legislation. And ministers are not under any legal obligation to accept such a request.
Second, if the UK were forced to hold European elections in May, Brexit would inevitably become the main theme, and not only in the UK. Every populist party in Europe would argue, with cause, that the EU is an undemocratic, self-serving racket. It would destroy electoral campaigns. I am struggling to think why, for example, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, should back a long extension that puts him on the defensive in what is already shaping up to be a difficult fight, when instead he could be exposing the ties between the far-right in France and Russia? A delayed Brexit would be a gift for Marine Le Pen and anti-Europeans elsewhere.
UK participation in elections would also make it harder for moderate parties to form a majority in the European Parliament after the polls. Ukip (or Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party) are likely to be the winners in the UK, profiting from any outrage over a long delay. Such a victory for the populists in the UK would swell the numbers of Eurosceptics in the parliament, who could form a blocking minority.
There is also a danger that the EU may miscalculate the chances of a Remain victory in a second referendum. The idea of a delay has introduced a new dynamic. I know a lot of people in the UK — both remainers and leavers — who would be very angry if Brexit were to go into extra time. I would not take anybody’s vote for granted.
Yet, perhaps most importantly of all, a Brexit delay would distract the EU from more pressing business. It sucks up resources. The EU cannot fight more than one big crisis at a time and it faces several threats. The eurozone economy has begun an economic downturn — with short-term interest rates at -0.4 per cent and no room for effective monetary policy action. Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on European cars could be followed by a trade war. The US president may also question his commitment to Nato once he learns that Germany is not increasing defence spending. On the contrary, the German government, fearful of incurring a fiscal deficit, refuses to raise defence spending. Finally, do not underestimate the impact of China on EU unity. China has targeted Italy as the hub through which to conquer European markets for inward investment — and to circumvent the barriers Germany is trying to erect. Keeping the Brexit saga running for another year or two would distract from more important geopolitical tasks.
What is to be done? There are second-referendum fanatics in the UK, fully aware of the arguments above, who say it is not necessary to take part in the European elections. Eleanor Sharpston, a British advocate general at the Court of Justice of the European Union, seemed to confirm that this is legally possible. Other EU lawyers disagree.
Politically, it would be hard to justify depriving the more than 3m EU citizens who live in the UK — not one of whom voted for Brexit — of the right to participate in a European election.
To do so under the cloak of a pro-European cause would seem ironic. I can think of no faster way to destroy support for your cause than to accept such a depraved, deeply un-European course of action.
There are many dangers to a long delay, and no upsides for the EU. Pull the plug, please.