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Another Brexit extension will come with punishing conditions attached (Times)

2 April 2019


The Times title: Another Brexit extension will come with punishing conditions attached

Publishing date: 2 April 2019

“If the UK wants to avoid crashing out of the European Union with a longer delay to Brexit, it will have to sign up to some toxic terms and conditions.

After another debacle in the House of Commons last night, Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead negotiator, began to spell out some of the strings that will be attached to another Brexit delay.

“Such an extension would carry significant risks for the EU, therefore a strong justification would be needed,” he said this morning. “Many businesses in the EU warn us against the cost of extending uncertainty. It could pose a risk on our decision-making autonomy.”

If the Commons impasse continues, Theresa May will be forced to choose between no-deal Brexit or a long delay to withdrawal at a summit of European leaders on April 10.

To justify the delay, the prime minister will have to promise that the Commons will choose between four options: a soft Brexit, a general election, a second referendum or cancelling the Article 50 withdrawal notice.

The ultimate humiliation could be a rejection if France, Belgium or others decide her pleadings are not serious enough and that the government is just playing for time.

If she chooses no deal, Britain will have a disorderly withdrawal from the EU on April 12, or possibly two or three weeks later. The EU believes it will be a matter of weeks before Britain comes back begging for talks even though the conditions will be the same as in the present, deadlocked withdrawal treaty.

A lengthy extension of the Article 50 withdrawal process will first be set at nine months or a year and could last until 2021. The length of time will be demanded by the EU so European businesses can prepare and to remove uncertainty.

Mr Barnier has highlighted what will be a very difficult condition so that Britain will not damage “our decision-making autonomy”.

This means Britain would always have to vote with the majority in EU decisions during the extension — no matter what the conflict might be with the national interest — particularly on Brussels budget and trade talks.

The government would have to agree to freeze British trade talks for the duration of an extension.

Such a prospect is daunting for any prime minister and will complicate any final Brexit deal by adding to costs, especially increased financial obligations that will total billions of pounds.

Adding to the poisonous political mix, Britain will have to hold European elections as early as May 23, giving voters in both the Leave and Remain camps the chance to punish the political class.

Conservative politicians would not enjoy explaining the lengthy delay, and the attendant costs and humiliations, or trying to set out a new strategy in a manifesto.

A divided Labour too would struggle to paper over the divisions between their voters, in the north and south, on a second referendum or reversal of Brexit.

Moreover, the whole cynical but messy exercise of going through the motions of sending 73 British MEPs to the European parliament for a matter of months will further taint politics in the eyes of millions of Britons.

In the immediate term, a long extension is less scary than no-deal but it will be unpalatable no matter who occupies No 10.”



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