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13 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:18pm

Why the EU should let the UK revoke Article 50

An intervention is needed to halt, or at least pause, this cycle of harm.

By Steve Bullock

The government is locked into a Brexit death spiral of its own making, and is hurtling willingly towards a catastrophic “no deal” scenario. Like any friend who goes off the rails, it needs an intervention by loved ones to get it out of its cycle of harm.

An overt offer from the 27 remaining EU states for the UK to revoke Article 50 may be the intervention that it needs to do this. It may also be in the EU27s interests to extend such an invitation.

As it stands, there are only 12 months until an exit deal must be reached, as this must also be agreed by the European Parliament. After five rounds of negotiations however, and despite some technical progress, none of the initial three separation issues have been solved.

Each of these issues requires serious movement on the part of the UK to unlock negotiations. The movement on citizens’ rights is not yet sufficient. Despite Theresa May’s overtures in her Florence speech, the UK is still unwilling to seriously discuss its financial liabilities, let alone agree to actually meet them. Despite all agreeing a border would be bad, it is now obvious there is no real solution to the Irish issue that does not involve either a real border, or Northern Ireland being in the customs union or a direct equivalent of it.

The EU’s position on these issues is well justified. Significant “concessions” from the EU27 on these would not help EU citizens in the UK, UK citizens in the EU, or the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic. Rolling back on the principle that what was committed to by the 28 EU members should be honoured by the 28 would simply open a pointless bidding war. There will not then be “sufficient progress” for next week’s EU Council to agree to opening talks on the future relationship. It’s now possible that there never will be.

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Throughout this process, the UK government has shown itself to be a disunited, unreliable negotiating partner. After invoking Article 50 it took nearly six months to agree on the need for a transition period, and it has still not agreed internally on what it wants this to look like. The government has not agreed internally on any of the three issues listed above, or the future relationship it wants. The Tory party cannot even agree whether it wants a future relationship, or a deliberate no deal.

With this level of disunity, it is a genuine question for the EU27 as to whether the UK government could actually deliver any agreement it did manage to make.

It’s also worth remembering that the EU27 did not ask for any of this to happen. Yet the government and sections of the press are positioning themselves at every turn to ensure that the EU27 is blamed for failures.

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This developing “blame myth” is important. If it takes hold it could make it politically impossible for this or any future UK government to commit to close co-operation with EU in the future. It could not only make a new free trade agreement or similar impossible, but also jeopardise co-operation in security and other essential areas.

The government acts as if it is unaware of the catastrophic consequences of “no deal”. With each ramping up of rhetoric, each complaint over the agreed sequencing, every briefing on low-ball figures for the financial settlement, the government hems itself further into a corner that it cannot get out of. An intervention is needed to halt, or at least create a pause, in this damaging cycle.

A calm, polite and overt offer from the EU27 to the UK to revoke Article 50 could do just that. It would offer an honourable climbdown for the floundering and divided government. It would give the government, parliament, and the UK population an opportunity to pause for some honest reflection as to whether this is, or is still, what it wants.

It could well push the Labour Party, and indeed some Conservative MPs to favour accepting the offer. It would also make it absolutely apparent that a “no deal” scenario is only acceptable to the UK government. Finally, it would ensure that the victim myth – that the EU27 are to blame for the government’s own choices – is put to rest. 

Were the offer accepted, the UK and EU27 would save vast sums of money that would otherwise lost due to Brexit. The time and energy the EU is now focusing on Brexit could be refocused on positive initiatives. The Good Friday Agreement would be protected, and uncertainty for millions of citizens would be removed. Co-operation in key areas such as security would not be undermined.

Were the offer refused, this would at least end uncertainty about Brexit. It would affirm that the UK government had chosen to continue in full knowledge of the situation facing it, including the EU27’s positions, the movement required to make progress in negotiations, the agreed sequencing, and the consequences of the different possible outcomes.

Would it actually help the UK? Hard Leavers would no doubt use any offer to stoke anti-EU feeling, and support the Ukip myth that the EU is desperately trying “imprison” the UK within it. “Who do they think they are?” they wouldd no doubt cry.

The point is that that Rees-Moggian section of Leavers are crying that anyway, but it may give soft Leavers and those that did not vote for this chaotic Brexit pause for thought.

Ultimately, it is not the EU27’s fault that Brexit is happening at all, or that the UK government has gone about it in such a cack-handed, ill thought out way. It is not the EU27’s fault that the UK government cannot maintain unity on even the most basic of questions. The EU27 has a responsibility to act in its own interests and to minimise the harm caused by Brexit, not to help out a flailing Conservative Party. It may even be too late. The EU27 may prefer it if UK just slipped away now.

While not having a deal would harm the UK significantly more than the EU27, the damage to the remaining member states would still be very real. Offering a chance to revoke Article 50 could help to minimise, or even eliminate much of the harm to the EU27. Besides, friends help out friends, even when they’ve screwed up.

Steve Bullock worked at the UK Representation to the EU from 2010-2014 where he negotiated several EU regulations for the UK. He has also worked for the European Commission and the Department for International Developments Europe Department. He tweets @GuitarMoog