Looking into the Abyss: A European Perspective

Guest post by Brigid Laffan, European University Institute. This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI) and Political Studies Association (PSA).

After almost two years of negotiations, the only political and legal certainty surrounding the UK’s departure from the EU, is that it will not happen at 11pm Brussels time on the 29th of March, 2019. From the outset, the EU adopted a clear set of objectives when confronted by Brexit. While regretting the UK’s decision, the Union prioritised an orderly exit to minimise the disruption and damage that would ensue. Beyond that it favoured a close relationship with the departing member state but one that did not undermine the integrity of the EU and its core regimes. Finally it was committed to protecting the interests of the Union, EU citizens and its member states. These combined objectives stemmed from a determination and resolve to protect the EU as a polity.

On the 21st of March, Europe’s leaders met to discuss a request from PM May to extend the article 50 process to the 30th of June because the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) had twice failed to garner sufficient support in the House of Commons (HoC). At the beginning of the meeting, there was an exchange with PM May on her WA ratification strategy. In a discussion that lasted over 90 minutes, it become clear to the EU27 leaders around the table that the Prime Minister had no concrete plan to secure the vote, other than returning the question to the Commons. Les Chefs took responsibility for next steps by offering the UK two dates. The leaders agreed an extension to the 22nd of May provided that the WA was passed in the HoC by the 29th at the latest. Otherwise, the UK had until 12th April to return to the European Council with a way forward if there was a failure to ratify. The 12th of April became the new 29th of March.

The leaders’ intent was to return responsibility to London and avoid the 29th of March 29 cliffedge. A major consideration for the leaders was the European elections that are scheduled to take place on 23rd-26th May. If the UK is still in the Union on 23rd of May, the legal consensus is that it must hold EP elections. Following the European Council, the ball is firmly in the UK’s court and the Government and HoC have to try to arrive at an accommodation that avoids a no-deal Brexit. Given the deep fissures in the two main parties, this may well prove beyond the May Government.

Following the meeting last week, the EU completed its preparations for a disorderly exit on the 12th of April. This is a signal that the EU is taking the prospect of a no-deal very seriously at this juncture. The press release dated 25th of March was stark in its conclusions: the UK would immediately become a third country with no transition period. Relations would be governed by international public law including WTO rules and all UK citizens would cease to be citizens of the Union.

The no deal preparations are unilateral actions by the EU to mitigate the worse effects of no deal but there will be no bilateral mini deals with the UK. All EU measures and actions are designed for a limited time period so that the UK cannot count on them as a long term solution. One of the early crunch points will come on budgetary matters; the EU is prepared to continue to pay UK beneficiaries for contracts signed before the 30th of March 2019 provided the UK pays its contributions to the EU budget and allows for audit checks and controls. If the UK refuses to honour its financial commitments, relations between the two sides will deteriorate further very quickly.

The Irish border is a major concern for the EU and the Irish Government in the event of no deal. The Union is committed to avoiding a border on the island of Ireland but must also ensure that the integrity of the single market is maintained. There are discussions between Dublin and Brussels on how to manage the necessary checks although not at the border. The island of Ireland is likely to be one of the first casualties of the UK failure to reach a domestic accommodation on Brexit.


Professor Brigid Laffan is the Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute, Florence.

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