We have a new Brexit deal that the EU insists is not a renegotiation, a special arrangement for Northern Ireland that the U.K. says is not a backstop (the name of the original guarantee in May’s deal to avoid a hard border in Ireland), and an official British request for an extension to the Oct. 31 deadline that Johnson says he doesn’t want.
You can imagine the EU’s 27 other leaders taking deep breaths and counting to 10. The bloc has made a Herculean effort to parry British attempts to divide its members on Brexit, and last week’s hard-fought new deal with Johnson was greeted with back-slapping relief. Finally, the EU could get on with other issues, from a tariff war with Donald Trump’s America to tackling climate change and trying to hold a firm line on China.
France’s president Emmanuel Macron showered Johnson in compliments, no doubt glad that seeing off the Brits — amicably, of course — would remove an obstacle to his ambitions for deeper EU integration. Now, once again, the prospect of delay is back, and with it the threat of more contagion as Britain’s dysfunctional national politics infects the orderly running of the EU and threatens that cherished unity.
So what should the bloc do?
Responding hastily is in nobody’s interest. Parliament hasn’t actually voted on the new Brexit deal yet. The demand for a three-month extension was forced on Johnson by British lawmakers as a way to make sure the Halloween deadline wouldn’t let him and his Brexiter allies bully the House of Commons into accepting “his deal or no deal.”
Any ruling from Brussels on an extension before Parliament votes on Johnson’s deal (which may happen in the next couple of days) would be seen as meddling in U.K. politics. Likewise, siding with Johnson by ruling out any delay would mean committing the EU to an ugly and economically damaging no-deal split on Oct. 31 in the event that Westminster failed to rubber-stamp his deal. If there’s not enough time to organize the vote itself before the end of October, the EU would allow an extension — it has no interest in prematurely slamming the door shut, no matter what Brexiter ministers such as Michael Gove might say.
If Members of Parliament approve Johnson’s deal rapidly, the debate is moot. The EU would obviously give the U.K. enough time to jump through the various legislative hoops to put Brexit into law.
Where things get complicated is if Westminster thwarts Macron’s plans for a quick divorce and rejects Johnson’s deal. If the deal fails by a handful of votes, and if those votes come from Johnson’s disgruntled allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, then Macron’s more hawkish views on an extension could hold sway. Brussels might offer only a short delay (less than the three months asked for) to try to force the last few holdout MPs into line or face a no-deal exit.
But if it becomes clear that Johnson’s deal will never get through the Commons (or is amended to death by opposition lawmakers) that will show the EU that Britain needs deeper political change to break the logjam. More dovish European calls for a longer extension would probably win the day. “Time alone will not solve the problem,” Amelie de Montchalin, France’s European affairs minister said on Monday, though she added there was room for discussion on an extension of six months or so should it be needed for a U.K. election or second referendum.
Even though some kind of extension appears inevitable, no one should underestimate how tense this debate might become among the EU’s leaders. The situation is very different to when May was in power, when hardcore Brexiters complained that she had done a poor job and boasted they could get a better deal from Brussels. Brexiters don’t blame the EU anymore for what is clearly a U.K. problem: Parliament’s inability to decide.
Macron’s impatience with London is spreading to his fellow leaders, with Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel talking of Britain as a post-Brexit “competitor.” There’s a point where infinite delays will be deemed costlier than no deal.
(This column was updated with a quote from Amelie de Montchalin and more detail on possible Brexit delays.)
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Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.