Extending Article 50: Brexit & Brussels Geopolitical Play

Written by | Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

The Brady amendment, passed on 29 January with the official supper of the British government, called on the government to renegotiate the provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement relating to the Northern Ireland backstop, and replace it with ‘alternative arrangements’. The ERG (European Reform Group) was quite aware that the Brady amendment would be rejected by the European Union. They cheerfully believed they could sit on their hands for a few more weeks creating diversions and distractions for the media, as the clock ticked down, and they pushed the UK out of the EU with no deal. They could then later turn round and blame the EU for the subsequent disaster that would be ‘no deal’.


The ‘Blame the EU’ strategy is very clear. This line is already being deployed in debates and in the media, and will go into overdrive if the UK leaves with ‘no deal’. There are manifold dangers in this strategy for the UK itself and the EU. The danger of enormous public anger at the scale of economic disruption together with violence (at least) in Northern Ireland is likely to see the public search for scapegoats. If Brussels becomes the principal target, then the ability of the EU and the UK to co-operate save at the most minimal levels of commerce and security co-operation will be lost to everyone’s detriment. This would include a security spill over to Britain’s membership of NATO and its willingness to honour the Article 5 guarantee, further weakening Europe’s security in an already challenging climate.


The other overlooked consequence in some member states is that with significant public and political hostility between the EU and the UK triggered by ‘no deal’, the Republic of Ireland would then face a long period of time with a hard border between itself and Northern Ireland. A populist UK government, rather than coming to the table in Brussels to do a deal, could double down, introduce rationing and seek to sit out ‘no deal’ all the while blaming the EU. This could be a winning strategy. The EU Council can pre-empt ERG attempts to make the EU take the blame for ‘no deal’ by making a generous and positive extension offer. A unilateral move to extend Article 50 by two years so the UK can work a means of securing an orderly exit would make it much more difficult for the ERG to subsequently blame the EU. At that point it would be clear that the European institutions had provided a number of ways forward for the UK.


Furthermore, a positive advantage of extending Article 50 by two years is that non-Brexiter MPs faced with the choices between ‘no deal’ and the Withdrawal Agreement that they have voted down by a majority of 230 would probably take the prolongation over the other two options. The other major advantage is that a lengthy extension would preserve the open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland for a further significant period of time. This is no small advantage given the prospect of the return of terrorism on a much wider scale (Northern Ireland already has had the most significant levels of terrorist activity within the European Union) and the prospect of spillover attacks in the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the UK.


The major political objection is the European Parliament elections on 23-26 May and some UK seats have already been reallocated and may have to be allocated back. There is a danger of a heavy win for UKIP in the UK elections, though to the contrary we may find that the British anti-Brexiteers and the three million EU nationals in the UK flock to the polls to register their protest for one last time. The argument here again is that the political inconvenience notwithstanding, the advantages for peace, economic security and legal integrity of Union law override the practical and technical problems related to the European Parliamentary elections.


‚Extending Article 50: Brussels Geopolitical Play‘ – Opinion by Alan Riley – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.

(The Opinion can be downloaded here)

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