BRUSSELS – The ink was not yet dry on EU leaders’ deal to give Britain a hard-fought, second delay to Brexit until November when some diplomats and officials in the bloc grudgingly conceded: This may well not be the last extension.
The Wednesday evening European Union summit ran into the wee hours of Thursday after staunch opposition from French President Emmanuel Macron to a longer postponement of Brexit swung the balance in favor of the Oct. 31 compromise.
European Commission Secretary-General Martin Selmayr coined a new Twitter tag: #29MarchMeans12AprilMeans31Oct — a quip on how Britain had been due to leave the EU last month, then got a reprieve recess until Friday and now a new delay, months longer than London had sought.
Selmayr’s line seemed to be a play on British Prime Minister Theresa May’s now-mothballed slogan, “Brexit means Brexit.”
And what will come after Oct. 31?
More delays are on the cards, depending on developments in Britain, according to EU officials and diplomats.
“If Britain decides to hold a second Brexit referendum, we will extend again, even in June. That would make absolute sense. You cannot cut the maximum term. You can only extend it,” said a senior EU official who was present at the summit talks.
‘Everything is possible’
Another one echoed that: “The legal situation is that everything is possible. A week is a long time in politics and we have now given 29 weeks. That is a very, very long time and a lot could happen.”
To be sure, the political price Britain would have to pay for any further recess would spike, the sources said, and it is by far not a foregone conclusion that all the 27 states staying on together after Brexit would endorse another extension.
But, despite Macron’s impassioned resistance to prolonging the Brexit uncertainty to no end, there is precious little appetite in the EU for the most damaging “no-deal” Brexit.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made it clear repeatedly that she wants an orderly British departure and is ready to exercise her patience to achieve that.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who Thursday confessed again that the best way forward would be to cancel Brexit altogether, is seen as trying to drag out the process in the hope that Britain could eventually change its mind.
In exchange for the Oct. 31 extension, Britain had to commit to holding elections for the European Parliament on May 23-26 and promise not to undermine EU policymaking.
But even Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission — the term of which ends Oct. 31 — said fears that Britain could alone stall the bloc’s agenda were overblown as majority backing was enough to pick replacements for himself and Tusk, while the EU’s 2021-27 budget was not yet up for approval.
“We have heard voices coming from Britain that Britain wants to be a very difficult partner for the others,” Juncker said after the summit, alluding to prominent hard-line euroskeptics in May’s Conservative Party. “That’s nothing new.”
Beyond France, Austria was among a few EU states more amenable to a shorter Brexit lag. Any delay for London would have to be approved unanimously by the other 27 capitals.
While no single EU member country would be keen to shoulder a veto on its own, a small group of reluctant capitals could block any further Brexit delay.
“It cannot be ruled out. Though it cannot be taken for granted either,” a third senior EU official said when asked if the rolling Brexit timeline would have another sequel.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte — whose country is traditionally a close ally of Britain, would be among those hardest hit by any abrupt split and hence favors kicking Brexit into the long grass — admitted it might be hard.
“I would expect this is the last delay,” Rutte said after the EU summit wrapped up. “On Oct. 31 the British will either have agreed to a deal, have decided to cancel Brexit or leave without a deal.”