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A Dilemma

February 27th, 2019

So, let’s imagine. It’s the Ides of March.  MPs have voted against Mrs May’s Deal (again). They’ve voted against No Deal. They’ve voted in favour of an extension.

Through gritted teeth Mrs May announces to Parliament that she and her faithful sherpa, Olly Robbins, will be off to Brussels (again) to agree a short extension. By now, one imagines, they must have their own personal Eurostar carriage and enough Belgian chocolate, vacuum-packed mussels and frozen frites in their larder to survive even the harshest of No Deal exits.

Sir Tim Barrow will once again organise meetings with President Juncker and Mr Barnier and their sherpas. Rooms will be booked, coffee will be ordered, Katya Adler will be there, notebook at the ready.

The meeting starts. The British say that their request is  clear: a short extension until the end of June is all that is needed. What is to happen during those three months is left unsaid. It might almost be described as nebulous.

Mr Barnier smiles. He tells them that the EU member states are, happily, of one view. They are willing to grant their British friends an extension of Article 50. The other EU states were, indeed, expecting this request. The British smile and begin to relax.

But. (There is always a “but”, is there not, mes amis? The story would have no tension otherwise.) The only extension the EU 27 are happy to grant is for a further two years. Nothing conclusive will happen in three months and they have other issues to consider. Italy is mentioned, as are the Spanish elections.  (And at the thought of Poland and Hungary, there is a deep sigh.)

During this two years, there will be time for the issues which have come up in relation to the proposed Withdrawal Agreement to be considered further and steps taken towards resolution. It will not be renegotiated, c’est clair. But clarifications can always be made. It is possible that very considerable progress can be made on the suggested technological solutions for the Irish border.

And they can and will start work on a proposed FTA between the EU and the UK.  Of course, it very likely will not be concluded within two years but a lot of progress will have been made if these matters are approached in a spirit of goodwill and with a lot of hard work. And with the likely end date for conclusion of the trade talks visible, this should show the British Parliament that the Irish backstop will not be – and is not intended to be – permanent.

(And if at this point Mr Barnier were to mutter, under his breath, that this had been said repeatedly by him, the Irish Taoiseach and many other EU leaders, one would not begrudge him a small “As I’ve told you” moment.)

They also mention en passant that such an extension would also provide Britain enough time for another referendum, should it so wish, and that the power to revoke Article 50 will endure for as long as the extension endures. Naturally, it is entirely up to us if we want to take up these other options.  And, of course, Britain would have more time for her to make all the other preparations necessary for life as a non-EU member.  

Britain would have to elect MEPs to the European Parliament but this was a small price to pay to give all concerned, including businesses across Europe, more certainty and time to plan. And all the other rights and obligations of being an EU member would remain unchanged.

But a 3-month extension: Non. Only a two-year one is on offer.

What does Britain do? What should Britain do?

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