After yesterday’s (13th October) vote in the House of Commons I could not resist the temptation to publish my personal thoughts on what might happen, fully aware that what I write is likely to be obsolete in the days if not hours after publication!
The first remark is to confirm that despite the vote last night, “no deal” remains the legal default outcome and entails the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU on March 29th, unless one of two alternatives prevails before expiration of the deadline:
1. A vote to rescind the Art 50 in the House of Commons followed by its notification by the government to the EU. I consider this to be a highly unlikely possibility as the alternative of a second referendum (see below) would most likely be preferred on “democratic” grounds.
2. A vote that secures from the EU (unanimity of the Council and majority of the European Parliament) an extension of the 2 year negotiating period. I consider this to be the most likely outcome subject to the considerations below:
The request for extending the deadline of the UK’s exit from the EU will need to specify its length and its purpose: there are two main choices:
a) A short extension limited to maximum June 30th. This alternative implies that the Parliament has adopted, before March 29th, the Withdrawal Agreement “unchanged” and voted on the Political Declaration, embodying either the existing text (PM May’s plan) or a more elaborate version, specifying the Parliament’s preferences for a closer “future relationship”(Cross-party agreement). This could be considered as giving specific instructions to the government on the guidelines to be followed in the subsequent negotiations with the EU on the future relationship, (equivalent to the negotiating mandate given by the European Council to the Commission).
This path could also accommodate holding a “confirmatory referendum” offering the choice between accepting the plan voted by Parliament and remaining in the EU, provided that it was held prior to May 20th and that adequate preparations were in place for participating in the EP elections if the remain vote prevailed.
Such a process should be welcomed by the EU and pave the way to an orderly exit of the UK from the EU.
b) A long extension running for up to December 2021. This alternative implies the participation of the UK in the forthcoming European parliamentary elections next May as well as meeting other conditions that will be demanded by the EU. Among other significant drawbacks, it postpones the start of ‘future relationship” negotiations as these cannot take place prior to the UK’s exit, prolonging commensurately the period of uncertainty as to the final outcome with its attendant negative economic, financial and social consequences. There seems to be no valid reason why an extension should last in fact more than a few months, as the longer it lasts the more onerous the conditions imposed on the UK will be.
There is a further overwhelming political argument against this option: the 72 English MEPs are likely to significantly upset the balance of power in the future Parliament at the crucial time of renewing the Commission and several other key positions within the European institutions. It would probably also ensure that the two main parties (EPP and S&D) would lose their current “majority” leading either to the creation of a wider coalition of “Europhile” parties or the need to compromise with some “Eurosceptic” groupings. The first solution would eliminate any “Europhile” constructive opposition and lead, in the longer run, to reinforcing nationalist/populist parties as the only remaining opposition force. The alternative would lead to the likely blockage of parliamentary work, inhibiting any progress in EU reform and integration thus seriously undermining the citizen’s perception of its purpose as well as compromising its stature (and that of its 27 Members) on the world scene.
These considerations render, in my view, highly unlikely the ability to secure a unanimous vote in the EU Council for a long term extension of the Art 50 negotiating period.
In this fast moving saga, riddled with competing egos, prejudices and dogmas, in which little consideration is given to putting the welfare of the country ahead party or private interests, the likelihood of missteps, leading to an unplanned “no deal” exit, is growing by the minute and may be on the verge of becoming the most probable outcome. It is squarely in the UK’s hands to avoid such a result; it is more than time to abandon posturing, bluffing and wishful thinking and for the British government and MPs to face up to their responsibilities.