As the looming Oct. 31 Brexit deadline agreed with the EU now looks impossible to meet, another extension is inevitable; as is the threat of squabbling inside the EU over its length.
The path of least resistance looks like the most likely outcome right now, with EU Council President Donald Tusk advocating a simple “yes” to the British extension request currently sitting on his desk. Johnson’s various shenanigans in trying to disown this request sent over the weekend (he made clear he was being forced by members of Parliament to ask for something he didn’t want) haven’t convinced anyone. Kicking the can down the road to January 2020, as torturous as that seems, would avoid the need for a new EU summit on Brexit and would avert a costly no-deal exit.
Aside from Johnson, France’s Emmanuel Macron will probably be the most outspoken critic of this arrangement, and justifiably so. A three-month delay seems very long considering MPs aren’t looking for a new deal; they’re looking for time to scrutinize, debate and amend the existing one. France is impatient to get on with reforming the EU in its image, which the Brits’ presence makes difficult. A short technical extension would focus MPs’ minds on passing the deal, and would have the benefit of being the U.K. prime minister’s preferred option.
The answer lies in the EU’s two unofficial guiding principles on Brexit: Never refuse an extension when it’s in front of you, and don’t get sucked into the quagmire of British politics.
The first principle is symbolized by the typically softer approach of Tusk and Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel. They fear a no-deal Brexit will backfire on the EU and don’t want to push out a key trade and defense partner too hastily. The second makes sense in the context of wanting to stay well clear of the endless, and so far inconclusive, machinations in Westminster: Applying pressure on MPs to get on with approving a deal won’t look so clever if Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill starts to fall apart under scrutiny. As my colleague Therese Raphael wrote on Tuesday night, there’s a lot to dislike in the devilishly complicated “solution” to the Irish border question.
So as tempting as it is from the EU’s point of view to try to hurry Brexit along, the bloc might be better conforming to type and playing it safe. This extension could be made conditional on passing a deal soon, or — if MPs block it — on deeper change via a second referendum or a general election (which may be Johnson’s preferred choice).
Still, as the saga of the U.K.’s departure from the EU lurches into 2020, almost four years on from the referendum, no one should discount the possibility of the bloc losing patience altogether. Having a member that’s permanently stuck in the departure lounge isn’t good for the smooth functioning of the EU, and Macron’s administration has started to suggest that maybe no deal is better than infinite delays. There won’t always be a letter requesting an extension sitting on Tusk’s desk.
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Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.