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Brexit: over by Christmas?

2019-04-11 08:27:02

We need to be reminded that European Councils exclude the media, and even officials. The interpreters are present, but their notes are collected after the meeting and burned. Servants are sworn to secrecy.

One must, therefore, take media accounts of the proceedings with a pinch of salt. It is a favourite pastime of EU officials and Member State functionaries to throw the odd titbit to the pig-pen, to watch the hacks squabble over it. And an amount of deliberate misinformation is often handed down, sometimes for no better reason than to make its originators look good (or more important than they actually are).

Nevertheless, the fact that the proceedings ran to nearly midnight is a good enough indication that there wasn't an immediate meeting of minds. I can't imagine that even the "colleagues" are so cynical that they were putting their feet up, watching Netflix on their laptops, just to keep the media in a state of frenzied excitement.

The culprit, who kept all the hacks past their bedtimes, is said to be French president Macron. He was apparently worried that the UK might prove a disruptive influence in its last few months of membership, blocking the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) talks and otherwise acting in bad faith.

It is also said that Mrs May was put through the wringer in an exceptionally long interrogation, lasting more than an hour. And, as between the shorters and the longers, there is no indication of who came up with the "compromise" solution of 31 October.

When you think about it, though, 31 October is the obvious date for the UK's Brexit extension. On reflection, it could have been no other, once Mrs May's preferred date of 30 June had been ruled out.

The clue is given by Reuters, which occasionally has its eye on the ball. It points out that the UK holding European Elections could change the political balance of the parliament which, in turn, could distort the choice of Commission president, favouring the centre-left.

To avoid this, EU officials had been considering extending the mandate of Jean-Claude Juncker, whose term expires at the end of October. But dumping the UK MEPs would also be necessary so that a Brit-free parliament, with the "correct" political balance restored, could approve the "right" i.e., centre-right candidate with the minimum of disruption.

That we have to go to all the palaver (and cost) of an election, for MEPs who will attend four or maybe five plenary sessions, is neither here not there. The "colleagues" have never been too worried about spending other peoples' money. And then, presumably, the UK will also be paying budget contributions up to the end of October, which should run to a tidy few billion pounds.

As it stands, there is also to be a review in June, which is something of a concession to Mrs May, and goes halfway towards accommodating Donald Tusk's "flextension". It also doffs a cap to Macron, who wanted a series of reviews with "sudden death" cut-offs if the UK was judged not to have behaved.

Whether June is long enough to get the Withdrawal Agreement past an unwilling Westminster parliament with or without the help of Labour remains to be seen. It may even be questionable as to whether the six months and a bit that takes us to the end of October will be long enough.

Even a referendum might be marginal in the time, but it is possible that we could have a change of leader. There would also be long enough for a general election which, technically, only needs five weeks for a campaign. By October, therefore, we could have a Corbyn government in which case Brexit might be the least of our worries.

In the immediate short-term, however, just the news of the extension takes enough pressure off Westminster to allow the Easter recess to go ahead. The House is to rise today presumably after hearing Mrs May's report on the European Council, and making a lot of unpleasant noise and it will not return until 23 April. The stressed-out little dears can slink back to their constituencies, or wherever else their fancies take them, to rest and recharge their reservoirs of stupidity.

One thing that hasn't been made clear is whether the end of October is final, or whether the way is open for yet another extension. But then, we haven't had all the obligatory press conferences yet (some were being delayed until later today) and the official conclusions were late in coming. When they finally arrived, all we got was a one-liner: "On 10 April 2019, the European Council (Art. 50) adopted conclusions on Brexit".

It doesn't say whether this is a holding statement but, clearly, the Manneken pis is alive and well. At face value, though, it looks as if our nightmare might be over by Christmas, even if it is just replaced by another with nothing really settled. There is always the possibility that whoever is our leader before the final date of our departure might press the nuclear button and revoke the Article 50 notification.

However, things are more up in the air for the moment than one might have imagined. As I started writing, in the wee small hours, it was not even certain that the European Council's "offer" had been formally put to Mrs May. And until there was an official response from the UK, nothing could be taken for granted.

At that time, Associated Press was reporting that Mrs May was expected to meet with Donald Tusk "to discuss the offer", but there were no accounts of that meeting having taken place. Tusk, however, had held his own press conference and said that the new date was the best possible solution, and six months "could be enough" if there was goodwill and a majority for a solution in the Commons.

The European Council president also said that the intention was to finalise Brexit in October. That was "the wish and the hope", but he added that he is too old to exclude another scenario. Everything is possible. And on that basis, even if we get past the review in June, we could be faced with a repeat of the soap opera sometime in October, possibly during the meeting scheduled for 17-18 October.

Nevertheless, events are closing in. The process of selecting a new Commission president, and ratifying the appointment of the individuals who make up the college, is an important function of the European Parliament, and one which it takes very seriously.

In all probability, the EU institutions and the Member States will be wanting to draw a line under Brexit and get on with their own business. By allowing a full six months for the UK to sort out its affairs, the "colleagues" can convince themselves they've gone the extra mile. The landmark of a new Commission, with a new president, may be the turning point when the Union finally gets down to planning its future without the UK.

As Pete points out, though, it is unlikely that the UK will use this time wisely, with the politico-media nexus retreating into its comfort zone of domestic politics, indulging in an orgy of speculation over leadership changes and a possible general election.

That the time would be wasted seemed very much in the mind of Donald Tusk, who pleaded with the UK to use the extension "to the fullest of its ability". Finishing off his own press conference, he addressed his "British friends", to say: "Please do not waste this time".

Certainly, there was no time wasted in Brussels. No sooner had Tusk strutted his stuff than Mrs May produced a statement that she delivered at her own press conference. She had accepted the extension, but averred that, if we i.e., parliament - are able to pass a deal in the first three weeks of May, we will not have to take part in European elections and will officially leave the EU on Saturday, 1st June.

She concluded by saying that she knew there was "huge frustration from many people" that she had to request this extension. "The UK should have left the EU by now", she said, "and I sincerely regret the fact that I have not yet been able to persuade parliament to approve a deal which would allow the UK to leave in a smooth and orderly way".

The choices we now faced were stark and the timetable was clear, said May. We had to "press on at pace with our efforts to reach a consensus on a deal that is in the national interest". And, with that, we await her statement to the House of Commons. It is going to be a long day.