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EU leaders agreed to a short Brexit extension. Almost a million people marched the streets of London for a second vote on Brexit, and 5 million people have signed an online petition to cancel Brexit. Which scenarios are left open? UvA Professor Jonathan Zeitlin, expert on EU governance and closely following Brexit developments, shares his views: “it is clear that the British Parliament does not want the current withdrawal deal, nor a hard Brexit.”

Brexit March London

EU leaders agreed that if the British Parliament approves the withdrawal agreement (Theresa May’s deal), the UK will have until 22 May, a day before the European Parliament elections, to complete any technical steps, exit and begin a transition period through December 2020. If May’s deal is rejected again, then the UK will have until 12 April to identify other ways forward. UvA Professor Jonathan Zeitlin shares his views on Brexit developments.

J.H. Zeitlin

What does the British Parliament want? 

“The British Parliament is heavily divided and the political leaders of many parties are in favor of a soft Brexit, or no Brexit at all. But until now Prime Minister Theresa May has hardly allowed for open debate on other scenarios than the deal she designed or a hard Brexit. A soft Brexit, in which the UK would remain part of the EU Customs Union and/or the Single Market, has not really been discussed. Other than a Brexit extension, the Parliament has not said what it actually wants.”

What is the position of the EU?

“Last Thursday night EU leaders agreed to a short Brexit extension, but only if Britain reaches an agreement on the withdrawal deal before 12 April, the last day on which it could start preparations for the European Parliament elections. The EU is unwilling to allow a Brexit extension past 23 May when the European Parliament Elections begin. The European Commission has stated that a longer Brexit extension would undermine the legitimacy of the European Parliament, and open EU decisions to legal challenges.

This hard stand, however, is disputed by some legal experts, including Eleanor Sharpston, a highly respected British Advocate General at the EU Court of Justice, who claims other solutions are possible, such as allowing British MEPs to sit in the new Parliament as additional members on a temporary basis.”

Why is the EU taking this hard stand?

“There is a lot of irritation among EU leaders about the way the UK is handling, or rather not handling, its own affairs. There is low to no trust in Theresa May and she is regarded as incompetent, being unable to grasp the dynamics within her own Parliament.

The EU is also much better prepared for a hard Brexit than the UK and has already made expensive preparations for a no-deal Brexit. Every new day of delay comes with considerable costs for member states keeping these preparations in existence.”

Jokes about Brexit and May

The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte even went so far as to compare Theresa May to the limbless knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who says to his opponent after his arms and legs have been cut off : ‘Let’s call it a draw.’ The French EU minister Nathalie Loiseau has joked about naming her (imaginary) cat ‘Brexit’ because he miaows incessantly to go out, but once the door is open cannot decide whether to leave.

Would the EU allow a hard Brexit?

Despite the hard stand of the EU and irritation of EU leaders, Zeitlin does not believe the EU wants a hard Brexit: ‘Especially Ireland, but also Germany want to avoid a hard Brexit, and member states typically defer to one another for agreement. No one wants to be the initiator of chaos.”

But is a hard Brexit still possible?

“Accidents happen in world politics. There is a considerable group in the British Parliament that hates May’s withdrawal deal and fears a soft Brexit. They will keep working towards a hard Brexit. Their stand converges with that of some EU leaders who are fed up with current developments.”

What can May still do?

“May will demand a third and final vote on her withdrawal deal. The Speaker of the House, John Bercow, the master of all procedures in the House of Commons, must agree to allow such a vote – which he may now be prepared to do in response to the European Council’s extension decision. If he refuses, May could propose a ‘paving motion’ for a third vote, which would require support from a majority of MPs, but this does not seem likely.”

What are the possible scenarios after the deal is voted for, or not?

  1. The deal is accepted and voted through; Theresa May will have until 22 May to complete any technical steps, exit and begin the transition period.
  2. The deal is not accepted for a vote or voted down. The UK then has until 12 April to come up with alternative ways forward. Today, a cross-party group of MPs will table an amendment that would allow a series of indicative votes on different options, such as various softer versions of Brexit and a second referendum. A similar amendment failed by two votes last week, but seems likely to pass now.

What about the position of May herself?

"May herself is coming under increasing pressure from Conservative Brexiteers to step down, after having agreed to the European Council’s extension. But so far they are unable to agree on an alternative candidate, so she remains in place. If the House of Commons adopts an alternative strategy to her deal or no deal in its indicative votes this week, it is hard to imagine how May could remain in charge of the process, but she has so far proved remarkably resilient in clinging to power."

What would be your preference?

“For a long time I preferred a second referendum, but I have changed my view. The last period has shown that Britain, in its current political form, is incapable of taking major decisions and would be a very disruptive member of the EU. My preference would now be a soft Brexit: they would remain within the EU Customs Union and ideally also the Single Market, but as rule-taker without any decision-making power within the EU.”

A continuing story

Later this week we will follow up on this interview with a reflection on why it is so difficult to leave the EU and the implications of Brexit for the EU and the Netherlands. On 1 April Jonathan Zeitlin and colleagues will debate Brexit in SPUI25: why did it happen? What will the consequences be for future relations with the UK ?