Brexit delay, EU must spell it out for Britain

Preparations for Brexit are in confusion as the divided Tory government struggles to get its business through a hung parliament. The Labour opposition is as divided, while both main parties face more defections to the Independent group of MPs. There isn't enough time to complete all legal & administrative steps for an orderly Brexit on 29th March. Senior government ministers accept a delay will be needed, the most frequently touted final exit date is the end of June. It's likely the arguments & the complex task of implementation may not be complete by then. There are serious risks of a disorderly exit causing harm to citizens, businesses, academic and civic organisations.

Tory ministers, like most UK commentators, ignore the inconvenient fact that Britain can apply for an extended time limit but the EU27 will decide the outcome and EU states have a very different view from feuding MPs. EU states are unlikely to agree on a temporary fix, to get Mrs Mayem out of her latest tactical stalemate. They must consider the long-term interests and welfare of the EU's citizens and states, including the UK, all of which require a robust, sustainable agreement.

The UK government's failure to secure a consensus and ratify the Withdrawal Agreement (‘WA’) doesn’t inspire confidence in its ability to deliver an enduring settlement, particularly relating to the Good Friday Agreement, the rights of EU citizens in the UK & UK citizens living in the EU27. Senior Tory MPs have proposed agreeing anything to leave the EU, believing that Britain will be free to make unilateral changes post-Brexit. Political dissembling and Brexit chaos have destroyed trust in the UK among governments, observers and investors, worldwide.

It's very important that the EU27 adopt a considered, longer term view, since UK politicians are incapable of either of these. A short delay to the Article 50 deadline may only accelerate the confused state of British politics, leading to a chaotic outcome. It must be asked if the UK has failed to define what Brexit means and what sort of future relationship it wants with the EU, 32 months after the referendum, what are the chances this will emerge in the next three months? I think the chances are very slim and the risks of a chaotic outcome are high. It would be preferable for the UK government to do what it should have done before the withdrawal referendum, to seek consensus around a detailed plan for future relations with the EU. This will not be done in a matter of weeks or a few months. A significantly longer extension will be required, well into the term of the new EU parliament.

Friends must sometimes speak unpalatable truths. The best service the EU27 can render, in a spirit of friendship, is to spell out facts which seem obvious to most foreign observers. The UK is going through the political & constitutional equivalent of a nervous breakdown. A divided government and parliament is not in a fit state to make enduring decisions about the UKs future. This will undoubtedly provoke a furious reaction from Brexiters. So be it. Brexit Britain is a world-leader in manufactured fury. EU27 states must act fairly and honestly in the long term interests of European states & citizens, including Britain, even if the patient is unwilling to hear the diagnosis.

EU27 states should not dictate the future course of action by Britain but they have a duty to insist it should take its time and consult fully in the interests of a stable long-term settlement. The EU27 should agree, in principle, to an extended time limit for the Article 50 process provided the UK undertakes to engage in a broad-based consultation to decide the way ahead. The Art50 notice period should be extended by at least a year & preferably two years. The UK government should undertake to engage in a comprehensive public consultation with parties, people & the devolved authorities in Scotland, Northern Ireland & Wales, with the aim of securing a broad, robust consensus for a sustainable course of action, either Leave or Remain.

EU27 are justified in making this request because of the manifest failure of the UK government to find a consensus Brexit strategy. The EU states should recommend strongly that public consultations should include either citizens assemblies and/ or a final referendum, explicitly binding rather than advisory, with a clearly defined statement of the preferred future relationship between the UK & the EU, and the consent of the devolved nations. Following this consultation, a revised WA could be concluded, provided a broad-based and clearly sustainable consensus has been achieved. It might be argued that such a request is outside the powers of the EU. It can be counter-argued that the prescriptive terms of the Article50 process, as defined in EU treaty law, have been exhausted. We are entering an area of discretionary, political decision making, beyond the precise terms of the Article50 process. Difficult constitutional questions have been raised in the UK's national courts and the ECJ, some still ongoing, contesting the validity of UK government's issuance of the Article50 notice and the conduct of the EU withdrawal referendum. All these considerations, taken together, raise serious doubts about the durability of any EU/ UK Withdrawal Agreement at this time.

The combination of sustained political deadlock in the UK and legal challenges renders it necessary to issue a strong recommendation that UK government should commit to finding a consensus position, as a basis for a future relationship between Britain and the EU27, in return for a substantial delay in the Article 50 notice period. Of course Britain might eventually chose to remain in the EU, but that is for Britain to decide.


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