The EU Should Choose a Hard Brexit

Theresa May requested on Friday an extension for Brexit. She wants to move the date from April 12 (itself an extension from the original “exit” date of March 29) to June 30. Tusk is already on record suggesting a year-long “flexible” extension, meaning that the UK could leave earlier if it agrees on a deal. Obviously, Tusk is actually hoping that there would be a political change before the year-long deadline, which would lead to the cancellation of Brexit. One has reason to hope. May’s efforts are floundering. All May has left is to put Parliament under the pressure of (another) deadline.

Even that is not under May’s full control—the EU Council has to agree to any new deadlines. The Council, which is made up of all the heads of state of EU member countries, in addition to Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, is due to meet in another emergency meeting on Wednesday, just two days before the current April 12 deadline. They must agree unanimously to any deadline extension.

Should they? May requested June 30 last month after the negotiated Brexit deal was rejected by Parliament a second time. The Council was split between the Tusk wing, which favors longer and more flexible extensions, and the harder-line wing, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, which sees potential danger to the EU’s legitimacy and economy if the EU keeps the sclerotic Brits around. They arrived at a rather elegant compromise of April 12, which is the day that Britain would have to notify the EU if it plans on holding European Parliament elections. (Member countries vote for representatives to the European Parliament.) In asking for the June 30 extension, May said, begrudgingly, that Britain would indeed hold elections in May. June 30 is two days before the newly elected parliament would convene.

If that date is agreed upon, British citizens, fully three years after having voted to leave the EU, would be voting to send new representatives to the European Parliament. Those representatives, if a deal is reached before June 30, wouldn’t actually take their seats. If yet another extension is given, like Tusk’s year-long idea, British MEPs would sit in the chamber and be able to vote on EU measures while the government they represent seeks to depart from it. This would raise all sorts of questions about the legitimacy of EU parliamentary measures passed with British MEP votes. Or, more likely, the legitimacy of British MEPs blocking any measures that other MEPs want to pass.

Is this worth it if it means avoiding a “hard” Brexit? France’s Macron appears less inclined to think so. It’s not clear how many other members of the Council agree. Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurtz told reporters on Wednesday that “there is, from the current point of view, absolutely no reason for an extension since the chaos in Britain has not changed.” Juncker told reporters on Sunday that patience is “running out.”

For some countries, notably Germany and Ireland, it is worth it; a no-deal Brexit is projected to cause them substantial economic damage. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly voiced support for a more lenient approach to Brexit negotiations and has said she would fight to prevent no deal “to the very last hour.” Interestingly, she added, “apart from Ireland and the UK itself, France stands to suffer the most economic damage [from a hard Brexit]” according to the Financial Times. Yet, Macron appears willing to suffer damage if it means quarantining Britain’s toxic politics and preventing it from infecting European domestic and continental politics.

Macron’s primary goal for France—and Europe—is to stem the rise of right-wing nationalist parties, most of which seem to look back fondly on the 1910s. With that goal in mind, Britain, ironically, seems to have provided an invaluable service to Europe. They have demonstrated—to the hilt—that leaving the EU is prohibitively stupid. Europeans, including those playing footsy with fascism, have taken note. Hungary is currently enjoying Viktor Orban’s premiership, who won office in 2010 on a belligerently anti-EU platform. According to a February poll, three times as many Hungarians now believe EU membership is a “good thing.”

“Orban prods and provokes but can only go so far,” writes former British MEP Denis MacShane. MacShane reports encouraging signs that other right-wing nationalist parties across Europe are being stymied, thanks in part to Britain’s dazzling example:

“The last thing today’s rightist populists … in Central-East Europe want is to quit the EU – the main source of Polish, Hungarian or Czech economic modernization. It is the Brexit effect. Everyone looks with shock and awe at what Brexit hostility to Europe has done to politics, the economy and public finances in Britain – even before the UK has left Europe – and knows to promote such ideas in their domestic politics is a guaranteed vote-loser.”

A hard Brexit, which would economically hurt the EU but very likely devastate Britain, could serve as a political death-blow for any lingering “exit” sentiments across the rest of Europe. Since May’s political collapse, the EU has gained complete command of the situation. The dynamic is no longer about Britain choosing to leave Europe, but Europe choosing whether to leave Britain out. Besides getting rid of a babbling nuisance, Europe would be choosing political certainty.

Macron is already working on convincing his counterparts on the Council. Earlier this week, the French president visited Ireland and almost certainly discussed a no-deal outcome. No doubt, Macron is thinking about how to guarantee the Irish enough economic and physical security that they would go along with no deal. On Friday, Macron reportedly secured a major victory by winning the support of Spain and Belgium, the latter of which is projected to suffer economic pain with no deal. Winning over the Belgians could help pull in other countries that are concerned about the economic consequences of no deal.

Britain—really, England minus London—has, unexpectedly, done a tremendous service to Europe. Its usefulness, however, has come to an end. It’s time for Europe to leave this tiny island to its own delusions.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.