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24 October 2019

The EU is set to grant the UK a Brexit extension, but its patience is running out

The drawn-out process of leaving is creating problems for the rest of the EU.

By Pauline Bock

Two things are certain in Brussels these days: no one wants to grant the UK another extension, but no one will deny it one. 

The EU is set to confirm a delay to the UK’s Halloween deadline in the next few days. But with Johnson’s threats to scrap the Brexit bill altogether rather than accept a three-month extension, EU leaders will meet on Friday to discuss the matter of its length – with some favouring a much shorter delay.

The EU has shown a wealth of patience in the last three years, acting in a dignified manner while privately fuming at Britain’s leaders. The current Prime Minister’s recent actions have done nothing to settle the discontent; sending EU leaders three simultaneous letters just last week. The first was unsigned and asked for an extension, the second made clear the first was from parliament, not the government, and the third argued against an extension altogether.

This rigmarole only added to a fortnight of a series of thinly veiled insults from Johnson: forcing an extremely complex piece of legislation through parliament without proper time for MPs to study it, and then threatening to do away with the whole thing and call a Christmas election if he doesn’t get his way. 

That Europe’s leaders are still inclined to grant an extension of any length shows they are committed to avoiding a no-deal scenario, which would have a grave impact on the bloc’s single market, and a far worse one on the British economy. 

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EU Council president Donald Tusk has recommended that EU leaders accept the UK’s extension request. He has said he will “propose a written procedure”, which would circumvent the hassle of yet another European summit. The president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, has agreed that “it is advisable that the European Council should accept this extension”. It will, he said, “allow the United Kingdom to clarify its position and the European Parliament to exercise its role”.

Brussels has more to think about than a Brexit process that keeps complicating its other activities. The formation of the new European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen, for example, which was planned for 1 November, has been postponed to 1 December. If the UK remains in the EU then, it is legally required to name a British commissioner and von der Leyen has said she will ask the UK for one if it is still a member past 1 November.

This is just one example of why many in the EU simply want the UK gone. Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, has another: “You’re all thinking: another extension. I am thinking: another three weeks listening to Farage,” he tweeted earlier this week.

French President Emmanuel Macron, pushing for a shorter extension, has demanded a new deadline of 15 November. This adds two weeks to the original 31 October date, which would allow parliament to ratify the bill without rushing and the UK to leave the bloc before the new Commission takes office. France’s Europe minister Amélie de Montchalin said: “We will see if a purely technical extension of a few days is justified, so that the British parliament can complete its parliamentary procedure.”

Macron has become an expert in harsh stances on Brexit aimed at forcing the UK to back a deal, but his latest is unlikely to win him friends in Brussels. Johnson clearly is unafraid of no deal and Macron’s ultimatum could play out in his favour (as silly and unworkable as this plan would be, reports that Johnson has asked the French president to block his extension request don’t help, either). Macron, meanwhile, has isolated himself from European allies in Brussels, first by blaming the European parliament for playing “political games” when MEPs refused to back his candidate Sylvie Goulard for French commissioner, and then by vetoing EU accession talks with Balkan states at the October EU Council. On the list of EU leaders’ biggest frustrations, Brexit ranks high, but Macron’s one-sided declarations feature, too.

Back to Brexit and despite Macron’s grandstanding, the extension is most likely to be “flexible”, allowing the UK to leave before an end date that will almost certainly be longer than Macron’s hoped-for two weeks. On Thursday morning, the European Parliament said in a statement that it has “reviewed the state of play regarding the UK withdrawal from the EU in light of the latest developments and has written to European Council President, Donald Tusk, to recommend he accept the request for a further extension to 31 January 2020.”

If Johnson calls for an election, the extension could be even longer: “If the Brits were to opt for one of the longer-term options, meaning new elections or a new referendum, then for me it goes without saying that the European Union should take that into account [and grant a longer extension],” Germany’s economy minister Peter Altmaier has said.

The EU knows that three months, or even six, is still very little time to “get Brexit done”, even ignoring that passing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is only the start of a long Brexit process. But even if the UK definitely won’t solve any of its political divisions in that time, at least it would no longer be the EU’s problem.

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