British prime minister Theresa May has requested from the EU an extension of the current deadline of March 29 until June 30 to negotiate a Brexit agreement. This seems like far too short an extension. If the framework for a deal had been agreed upon and all that remained was to tie up loose ends, then three months may have been adequate. But the situation surrounding the current negotiations is nothing like that. Given that even after two years, they have failed to arrive at even the outlines of a deal that parliament can support, expecting it to happen in three more months seems wildly unrealistic.
Clearly the EU feels that a short extension will solve nothing and it is not clear that the EU is going to agree to it. European council president Donald Tusk has said that they will agree to a short extension only if the British parliament passes the existing deal by the existing deadline, something it has failed to do twice already by large margins. The Speaker of the House has ruled that the deal cannot be brought up again in this session. Getting past that would require some fancy parliamentary footwork.
But it gets worse. An extension beyond June 30 would require the UK to take part in upcoming elections for the European parliament. May must feel that that would so enrage the Leavers that they would topple her as party leader. So she is trying to give the can just a little kick down the road, hoping she can miraculously pull a deal out of the air that would be agreeable to the parliament and the EU in that time. But if they do get the June 30 extension and do not take part in the EU elections, that might jeopardize the possibility of another extension after June 30 if there is no deal, which is presumably the scenario that the EU leaders see as highly likely and want to avoid.
The Guardian has a review of how the Brexit debacle has shredded the image that people once had of the British as a savvy, pragmatic people with a competent bureaucracy that would know how to negotiate complex deals with other nations. The opinions of others in the EU of the UK performance so far are scathing, calling it “pathetic, incoherent, and chaotic”.
For politicians, diplomats and officials across the continent, the past two-and-a-half years of the Britain’s fraught, seemingly interminable and increasingly shambolic departure from the EU have proved an eye-opener.
To the shock of many, Brexit has revealed a country they long looked up to locked in a narrative of its own exceptionalism, talking mainly to itself, incoherent, entitled, incapable of compromise (with itself or its neighbours), startlingly ignorant of the workings of an organisation it has belonged to for nearly 50 years, and unrealistic.
Some British politicians are “on another planet”, Lamy said, incapable of seeing that Brexit is the infinitely complex diplomatic equivalent of “trying to take the eggs out of an omelette. Even today, they spout the most monstrous nonsense. Many have still not landed in a place one could call reality. The cognitive dissonance is … remarkable.”
In practical negotiating terms, “efficient and knowledgeable” officials had been short-circuited, Lamy said, “cut out of both the decision-making and the action, replaced by people who are ideologically pure – and, of course, have royally messed things up”.
Alexandre Holroyd, a member of the French parliament’s European affairs committee and Franco-British friendship group, said Brexit had laid bare “how little real understanding there is, even in a national parliament, of how the EU works, of its rules and institutions”.
When he was asked in 2016 how Brexit would turn out, Krichbaum said, he had replied that he feared the EU27 would “struggle to put up a coherent front” and warned that the Brits were “excellent negotiators and savvy political communicators. I got it completely the wrong way around, on both counts.”
Many put the failure down to the arrogance of a nation that once had an empire and saw itself as an indispensable nation that other countries in the EU would strive to accommodate at all costs. But the EU clearly seems to be fed up and thinks it can do perfectly well without the UK being part of it. They also said that parliament voting against a no-deal Brexit meant nothing.
A European commission spokesman offered a withering assessment of the decision by MPs to ignore Theresa May’s assertion that no deal was the default position unless there was a deal in place by the time of the UK’s departure.
“We take note of the votes in the House of Commons this evening,” the spokesman said. “There are only two ways to leave the EU: with or without a deal. The EU is prepared for both. To take no deal off the table, it is not enough to vote against no deal – you have to agree to a deal. We have agreed a deal with the prime minister, and the EU is ready to sign it.”
At the same time, the EU’s deputy Brexit negotiator, Sabine Weyand, told EU ambassadors that she feared the Commons was “divorced from reality”.
Quoting private remarks by the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, Weyand concurred with his description of the decision to vote for no deal as “like the Titanic voting for the iceberg to get out of the way”.
I have been posting quite a lot about Brexit not because it affects me directly but because I am astonished at how people in government who should know better can let things drift along until it is too late to stop a disastrous end. It is like a faster version of what is happening with climate change.