So there we are, a midnight flit to Strasbourg and a theatrical display on both sides of the channel and yet – of course – nothing has changed. The prime minister can dance on the head of a pin all she likes but her “legally binding” changes are nothing of the sort and not a word of her Withdrawal Agreement is different to the document rejected (by a historic majority) in January. There is nothing of substance here to convince either the ERG or Tory and Labour soft-Brexiters. It remains a worst of all worlds deal.
That is why we now need to turn our thoughts to how we will delay Article 50. Time is running out and whilst the prime minister will insist on asking MPs to not reject her agreement again (the irony for those of us campaigning for the public to have a second say is not lost) there is no real chance of it passing.
It is clear what the government wishes to do: recreate the same “cliff edge” that 29 March had previously provided them with, in the hope that MPs will this time be bludgeoned into submission. Mrs May will ask, therefore, for the shortest possible extension – probably two or three months. But aside from our beleaguered PM this will help no one. It is merely an extension to the gang-plank, rather than a bridge to any solution.
Of course, we are not in this alone. Any extension will have to be agreed with the European Council and my friends and colleagues across Europe tell me – in no uncertain terms – that the last thing they are prepared to offer is a political sledgehammer with which Theresa May can yet again fail to crack the Brexit nut. They want a solution which gives Britain the space and the time to breathe, to reflect and then to return to Brussels with a solution that can actually work. That is why they are considering a longer extension of 21 months, as floated by President Macron.
This would give the UK the chance to think again on what it is we actually want, rather than simply being forced by the prime minister into a repeated choice between the two options that almost no one wants; her deal or no deal. It would also give Ireland, the UK and our trading partners the opportunity to genuinely plan for the worst eventuality – so that if no deal can be reached at least we will have had the chance to prepare, provided Mr Grayling can be persuaded to let go of the reigns at the Department for Transport of course.
Such a long extension is dismissed out of hand by many here in the UK, concerned that it would mean two things – one, that Britain would have to participate in European elections in May and two, that we would be being forced to remain in the EU, by the EU, somehow against our will. We should not let either concern stand in the way of doing the right thing.
I confess that I had thought that the EU would offer us a get-out from the European elections in May. The truth is that they could if they so wanted, via a simple treaty change, do just that. But Jean Claude Juncker has now made it clear that an extension that goes beyond the date of the elections will require the UK to participate. Well, good. The answer to this country’s problems is more democracy, not less and while we wait for the eventual referendum, a clear public vote fought mostly on the issue of Brexit will give us a chance to flesh out the debate and to test the public’s will. My prediction is that parties opposed to Brexit and in favour of a referendum will smash the extremists in the Tory Party and will also beat Nigel Farage’s latest political machine. Our rallying cry will be “Europe Works” and I say, bring it on.
I spend a lot of my time listening to what European leaders have to say about Brexit and I believe that this – a bridge to a solution with the ball in Britain’s court – will find many advocates in the EU. It gives Ireland time to prepare. It gives Brussels the chance to focus on other things whilst we sort ourselves out. It gives everyone the space to breathe. But I also honestly believe that such a proposal could win broad support here, too. For advocates of a public vote it gives us a reasonable timeframe in which to properly conduct one. For those who lie in between these positions it creates the opportunity to debate and investigate other options. The only person that this does not suit is our prime minister. And I suspect that once this week is up, that won’t matter very much.
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