By Fabian Zuleeg, courtesy of European Policy Centre
While there is still some uncertainty, it looks like the EU27 have reached a deal with Boris Johnson. The task for the Prime Minister now is to find a majority in the House of Commons, already complicated by the DUP’s rejection of the deal. There is a serious question whether the Prime Minister can convince not only the MPs supporting his government but also the Conservative rebels and a sufficient number of the opposition.
One of the issues is the Benn Act. Having the possibility to avoid a no-deal situation by another extension might tempt many MPs to vote against a deal that will contain a range of difficult provisions, as well as providing a tempting opportunity to defeat Johnson yet again.
What is the rational response from a EU27 perspective? One is to wait and see what the House of Commons decides and, if it is no deal, hold out for the letter requesting an extension, hoping that, in the end, the political processes in the UK will lead to a second referendum that returns a remain majority. This is risky and only holds a small chance of success. However, it does buy some time.
But many are asking ‘the time for what’, with no resolution on the horizon and a general election unlikely to produce a clear outcome. So the other option is to take the possibility of another substantive extension off the table, creating a stark choice for MPs between this deal or no deal at all. Yes, there would need to be a technical extension in any case, but this could be made conditional on the House of Commons passing the deal in principle.
This might well represent the best chance for achieving an orderly Brexit. The deal currently on the table is probably the only alternative to Theresa May’s deal that is consistent with EU principles and crucially preserves the soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. By forcing a decision between this deal and no deal, it might well be the only way MPs are forced to make their mind up; if this deal does not pass, there is no other deal out there that has a better chance.
Many pro-Europeans in the UK will be outraged by such a move. But by now, overwhelmingly, EU27 leaders are looking for a way to get Brexit done in an orderly manner, rather than hoping the decision will be reversed. This will not dampen the political turmoil in the UK, but to some extent, it does isolate the EU27 from whatever is to come. It should thus be no surprise that President Juncker has already emphasised that there will be no extension. For many in the EU, it is this deal or no deal.
Fabian Zuleeg is the chief executive and chief economist of the European Policy Centre.