The EU is torn over whether to punish or forgive the UK

European divisions over the length and purpose of any Article 50 extension bode ill for Britain as it confronts the Brexit crisis. 

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Brussels has not seen the sun for several days. It’s as if the whole city has been engulfed by the gloom of European institutions. After EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker met Theresa May in Strasbourg earlier this week, he warned that if her Brexit deal was voted down again, there would be “no third chance”. The UK, like a pesky teenager testing its limits, voted it down anyway.

An op-ed in Le Monde said out loud what everyone in Europe is thinking: “The upsetting spectacle of a second vote against Theresa May’s deal dramatically shows the UK’s incapacity to grow out of the spoilt child role it was accustomed to by its European partners. From the budget rebate to the exemption on welcoming migrants, from not joining Schengen to refusing the euro, the Brits prided themselves on exceptionalism.” They now look exceptionally dumb.

There was more sorrow than anger in the responses that followed the news. Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who at this point should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for not losing his temper, reminded the UK that “if [it] still wants to leave the EU and want to do so in an orderly fashion, then this treaty which we negotiated with the government of Theresa May for a year and a half is and will remain the only available treaty.” He added that the EU remains “respectful of the UK and its people”, embodying the European solidarity that has not once faltered during the interminable negotiations.

This European writer, upon visiting London earlier this month, asked people during the trip whether they had started stockpiling for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. Many thought it a joke, but when pressed on the topic, admitted they had a few cans of baked beans at the ready, or had timed a bulk order of toilet paper for mid-March, or decided to buy bottles of half-priced olive oil on a whim.

A no-deal Brexit then seemed a distant possibility. But most European countries, which would be far less affected than the UK, have been engaged in comprehensive planning for this outcome since the deal was first defeated in January.

As I spoke with Londoners, I worried about having misunderstood the extent of the UK’s post-Brexit plans. Now I wonder whether concerns about no-deal crystallised in the EU before they ever did in the UK. “We are at a critical point, the risk of no deal has never been higher,” Barnier said again on Wednesday. The EU’s patience seems infinite, considering the UK’s consistent vacillation.

“For answers [on what happens now], look to London, not Brussels,” an EU diplomat told puzzled reporters on Wednesday. But London, it would seem, is too busy deciding which weapon to shoot itself in the foot with. The various amendments tabled by parliament on Wednesday might have looked like very smart technical solutions at the UK’s end, but from Brussels it paints the same picture of contained panic.

Maybe there is nothing more British than keeping calm and holding a series of pointless votes instead of admitting that, no, we don’t have a clue what to do either. The simple idea of voting — on two separate days, when there are only 15 left to 29 March — on opposing no deal and on an Article 50 extension is baffling for the EU.

As Barnier was alarmed to realise, some British MPs still appear to believe there will be a Brexit transition period under a no-deal scenario: “The only legal basis for a transition is the Withdrawal Agreement,” he said. “No withdrawal agreement means no transition.” If your ship is taking on water and sailing towards rocks, voting against the water or the rocks won’t stop you being consigned to the bottom. On 29 March, MPs can engage in a contest of the loudest “nay”, but unless the UK makes some real choices first, it will be out with no deal, and no transition period.

As the only sensible party in this dystopian negotiation process, theoretically, the EU will blink: the extension of Article 50 is expected to be the solution offered by Brussels (indeed, however the British parliament votes, an extension requires the unanimous approval of all 27 other member states). But the EU has made clear an extension can only be granted if the UK offers a compelling justification.

Although Barnier has not excluded this option, he has asked: “Why extend this negotiation? It is over.” Juncker has said that “no one in Europe would oppose a British demand for an extension of talks” and that he has “no time frame in mind” for how long Brexit might be postponed, but his counterpart in the European parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, has firmly opposed “even a 24h extension”. However, European Council president Donald Tusk has stated: “I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”

The apparent inability of EU officials to agree on the way forward, after displaying a united front throughout the Brexit process, bodes ill for the EU27’s decision. There is no current majority among member states. France’s Emmanuel Macron has said that it “could be examined if justified”; Germany’s Angela Merkel has agreed on principle to give the UK “a little bit more time”; the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte expects “a credible and convincing justification.”

For now, EU diplomats can only repeat ad aeternam that “no request has been received”. That the British government began its latest no-deal preparations by raising the prospect of 0 per cent temporary tariffs did not exactly help its case: “The differential treatment of trade on the island of Ireland and the trade between EU and UK raises concerns, and in the event of no deal, the Union has already made clear that it would apply its normal third country trade regime to all trade with the UK and accordingly charge MFN tariffs on all imports from the UK into the EU,” an EU diplomat said on Wednesday.

If the UK wins an extension, and is still an EU member on 23 May, it will have to hold European parliamentary elections, Juncker has warned, adding that this would be “an irony of history”. Forcing Britain to care about European affairs, in the same way that it has made Europeans sweat over Brexit, may be the appropriate punishment for the UK’s unconscionable behaviour.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.