The EU is running down the clock on us

Who’s running down the clock on whom? As we British squabble noisily, variously berating or congratulating our politicians for “running down the clock” on each other or on Brussels, there’s a stranger in the background, observing silently. The hint of a sardonic (you could almost call it Gallic) smile plays upon his lips.

To his silence in a moment. But first to the British noise. Remainers and some Leavers (plus Labour) squawk that Theresa May is running down the clock on MPs, forever postponing high noon until it’s too late for parliament to choose between anything but her deal and “crashing out” of the European Union without any deal.

Other Leavers chuckle that that’s fine because EU negotiators’ habit is never to flinch until the last minute; but at the last minute they will flinch and we’ll get a better deal with a neutered “backstop” clause. So run down the clock on Brussels, they urge.

And there are Leavers who think Brussels may not flinch after all, so we’ll crash out, which is what they wanted all along. They can’t wait for the clock to run down.

So many clock-watchers. So much noise. And what Thursday’s Commons reverse for Mrs May and her whips achieved was an increase in the volume, in the level of anxiety or glee about the ticking clock, and an increased expectation that no-deal will be “ruled out” by the Commons when, later this month, Mrs May returns to parliament for her ritual humiliation.

But now to that quieter clock-watcher: a creature of my imagination, representing our EU fellow members and their negotiating team. His sardonic smile broadened a little at Thursday’s news from the Commons division lobbies. He knows what we British tend to forget: that it is not within Britain’s power to “rule out” a no-deal Brexit. Not unless we’re saying we would in the end submit to whatever our fellow members dictate. Hence the smile.

If (as I believe, and as the rest of the EU probably suspects) no-deal is unthinkable to us, and if MPs cannot accept the draft deal that Downing Street has concluded, and if the clock is ticking, then when’s the best moment (from Brussels’ viewpoint) to turn the screw? Now or at the eleventh hour?

The later the better for Brussels, surely, when we’re cornered, and realise it, and time is running out. That moment may come as late as a week before March 29. The EU meets for its planned summit on March 21-22. Could it be that it too is running down the clock until then? I have wondered at Brussels’ willingness to give our prime minister face-saving phrases about continuing talks with her.

By the third week of March we shall almost certainly be asking our partners for an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period. Every imaginable circumstance requires it. Even if Mrs May gets her current deal through parliament by the end of this month, there will then remain much to do on the legislative side. More likely, she doesn’t get her deal through and we’ll perhaps be talking by then about a “softer”, Norway-style Brexit that could command support from Labour — but that would take us back to the drawing board, needing months of work.

Or maybe by then we’d be in despair about finding any deal the House could agree on, and talking about a new referendum. For that, many months more would be needed. Finally, we might be contemplating a general election, in which case we’d be contemplating a new government with a new negotiating mandate; so, again, back to the drawing board.

There we’d be, days away from March 29, resolved not to leave without a deal, and requesting — I repeat, requesting — an extension. The words “over a barrel” spring to mind. And (if it hadn’t dawned on us before) we’d know that while we’d been squabbling among ourselves about running down the clock on parliament or on Europe, Europe had been quietly running down the clock on us.

Picture the situation. UK: “Please, please, can we have an extension, we’re terrified of crashing out.”

EU: “An extension to do what, precisely? Any one of us 27 has a veto, remember.”

UK: “Er . . . thrash out a few things. You know, tie up a few loose ends . . . run a few ideas up the flagpole . . . look, let’s be honest: we aren’t agreed yet among ourselves. Hopefully a couple of months will do, so we don’t have to hold British elections to the European parliament.”

EU: “Oh, for God’s sake! So you still can’t make up your minds? Are we to go through all this nonsense again, with a new deadline in May? And then maybe you’ll be asking for a few months more, and land our European parliament elections in a mess. Look, go away for a year, and come back when you’ve decided. You’ll have to hold your elections to the European parliament. But have a referendum, by all means. Or a general election. Whatever you like. Take your time. We’ve other things to be getting on with. A year’s extension, or nothing. You choose.”

We’d have to agree. The president of France is believed to favour a year at least. There would be wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Tory European Research Group, but when people can’t agree in politics, delay is always an option. Granted a delay, we continue the search for consensus. Within parliament I cannot see a majority being found, except for something Labour might support: staying in the EU customs union.

So a word, finally, about that. As I write, BRINO (Brexit in name only) is sounding rather cuddly, enough to raise one and a half cheers from two thirds of us — and “at least we’d be out”, the plan’s proponents would say. But before long, and like a mackerel on the fishmonger’s slab, the whole idea would begin to stink.

It’s a mug’s game pronouncing on what voters “meant” when they cast their vote, but I’ll risk speculating on what they did not mean. Leave voters did not mean “Stay bound by the European Union but surrender our say in what it does”. Obviously that’s a stupid move.

So the first casualty of reflection, once we’d paused to reflect, would be BRINO. The common ground on which MPs might find a majority would turn out to be a mirage. Try as I may — and I do try because something about asking the voters again discomforts me — I can see no route out of this that does not take us back to a long extension, and the People’s Vote.

Matthew Parris

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