THE reaction said it all. “We were saying all the time that we need to have more clarity from London. Clearly, there is no clarity. There is less clarity today than ... yesterday.”
First published in The National, 21 March 2019
That was George Ciamba, Romanian minister for European affairs. Romania has the rotating presidency to the EU so he will be in the chair at the meeting that may, or may not, decide on extending Article 50 if a request is eventually made.
Michael Roth, his German counterpart, was even more blunt: “The clock is ticking and time is running out. [We are] really exhausted by these negotiations and I expect clear and precise proposals [from] the British Government on why such an extension is necessary.
“It is not a game. It is an extremely serious situation, not just for the people in the United Kingdom, but for the people in the EU. For my government, the key priority is to prevent a no-deal Brexit… I don’t have any appetite for substanceless, very abstract discussions and negotiations on the Brexit. Please deliver, dear friends in London, please deliver. The clock is ticking.”
This is not the sort of language you hear in EU meetings, but then we’re not in normal times. The level of frustration with London has been palpable for months, but just as I think it cannot get worse, it can.
An MEP colleague last week, a veteran of decades of EU negotiations, put it even more strongly: “This is not politics, this is disgusting.”
This is all the sadder because these are friends of the UK. The UK was, honestly, well liked, trusted and respected. No more. The UK tended also to build consensus because it sent serious, well-briefed civil servants who made sure their ministers knew what they were talking about and took it seriously.
No more. Remember the now-iconic picture of Michel Barnier and his team opposite David Davis way back when the talks started? Barnier looking serious, conscious of the challenges ahead, bulging dossier in front of him, David Davis grinning like a half-cut simpleton, arriving with no preparation or research.
I want Scotland to be independent because our best future lies in independence in Europe. There are a million different reasons why – taking our place like Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and so many other countries at the top table, making alliances, forging common cause. But in 2014 we could not honestly say we’d do better than the UK in the decision making because on many issues we’d be on the same side and the UK was pretty good at it. No more. Scotland couldn’t do worse than this shower.
So the big news this week is that Speaker Bercow has reminded the House of Commons that it should not simply be presented with the same thing over and over. This torpedoed the so-called TARP strategy, named after the US Troubled Asset Relief Programme from 2008, which was not at first successful but was then voted through. This matters because this was evidently Theresa May’s plan, run down the clock and reduce all options to two: her disastrous deal or the catastrophic no deal. It is telling that amid all the huffing and puffing nobody thought to suggest it was a breach of Westminster’s own procedures. Bercow is simply asserting the power of the legislature over the executive. There is a UK constitution, it just exists in different parts in different places and yes, dates back hundreds of years.
We now see there is nothing the Brexiteers will not trash at the altar of Brexit. If you’re so keen on taking back control, I would have thought it worthwhile knowing the rules of procedure of your own Parliament.
So where now? As I’ve written before, the choices are the same: accept May’s deal with zero clarity on the future, leave with no deal in a matter of days on March 29, or revoke Article 50 now or later.
It is obvious there needs to be an extension in all scenarios as there is legislation to get through to make any deal (if one can be agreed) through the Westminster and European parliaments.
An extension can be requested, and must be granted unanimously by the EU27. There are some scare stories to the effect some EU states could block it. I don’t see that as a major risk but we cannot take an extension for granted as many at Westminster seem to.
Any extension, if it is requested, in itself, of course, solves nothing. It will need to come with a detailed plan or else it may well not be agreed to. As I write it seems May is going to first ask for the extension and then try to come up with a plan. Why not? It is after all the way she has conducted everything so far.
But we’re running out of road – the cliff edge, iceberg or whatever tortured metaphor you prefer is looming. My own favoured option, much as there is not a majority for it yet, is to revoke Article 50. We must ensure that is kept on the table so that May does not get her way.
Scotland voted to remain, revoking Article 50 will keep us in and the UK with us. That will of course not stop the conversation; the UK is going to be talking Europe for a long time yet. But we can have that conversation while the economy is crashing and millions feel anxious and afraid, or have that conversation while the economy remains weak but stable. We’re at the crunch point, but we’ll be doing this for a while yet.