Why Europe Should Reject Theresa May’s Brexit Extension

If Britain remains in the European Union due to a botched Brexit, its demands for special treatment will end up wrecking the EU.

A pro-Brexit activist holds a placard outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on March 20.
A pro-Brexit activist holds a placard outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on March 20. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

British Prime Minister Theresa May has finally admitted that she’s run out of time. Last week Britain’s Parliament did something highly unusual: It supported May’s government with a thumping majority. By a margin of 413 votes to 202 it agreed to allow May to seek an extension to the two-year Article 50 period, during which Britain is required to negotiate its exit from the European Union to avoid being cut adrift with no deal at all.

May cannot demand an extension but has to request one because, according to Article 50 of the EU treaty, the power to grant one is at the EU’s discretion. The remaining 27 EU members have the right to reject the British request—and they should. They should reject a short extension, as May has requested, because the pressure of time is the only thing that will prevent British lawmakers from continuing to demand the impossible. An extension of a few weeks merely postpones the day of reckoning. But they should also reject a long extension if they care about the survival of the EU.

A United Kingdom committed to the success of European integration would undoubtedly strengthen the EU. The catch is that Britain and even the British Remainers cheering House of Commons Speaker John Bercow’s politicized ruling out of a third so-called meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement are not committed to the EU’s success. To put it another way, the EU lacks legitimacy in Britain. That Brexiteers think so is hardly surprising, but even many Remainers share their contempt for the European project.

This feeling has its roots in the British experience of World War II. Unoccupied Britain sees the conflict as a vindication of its own nationalism, not a reason to repudiate it. The U.K., after all, is not Latvia or Ireland; the country thinks it’s big enough to do without safety in numbers. It’s also about pride. Having spent so long at the center of world affairs, Britain doesn’t get the same validation from being part of the European club that Poland or Spain feel they need—it feels like a demotion.

Deprived of these emotional hooks, too many Britons saw EU membership as transactional. Leavers thought the deal went bad from the moment the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, making it impossible to deceive themselves about the EU’s political project. Though Remainers thought the deal was a good one, it was still just a deal. It never became a matter of identity.

It’s no coincidence that in Hungary a new center-right, anti-Viktor Orban movement called Everyone’s Hungary has made adopting the euro as a currency the eighth plank of its platform. (Hungary still uses its own forint.) Its appeal derives less from its worth as a medium of exchange but from its value as a symbol of the party’s vision of Hungary as being in the middle of the European family, where it belongs.

Yet even pro-European Brits flinch at the single currency. One of their reasons for having a second referendum to stay in, rather than leave and rejoin, is that if Britain leaves it would then—as required by the Treaty on European Union—have to formally commit to joining the euro and abandoning the pound as part of new membership terms.

Britain’s opt-out from the euro in 1992 was a concession made to appease extremists in the Conservative Party who thought the single currency was a step too far. Now it’s the orthodoxy of British pro-Europeans. The same is true of the Schengen border-free area. Unlike virtually every other country in the EU, the British consensus has been to treat immigration from the EU and from outside it as essentially the same ever since Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown used the slogan “British jobs for British workers.” Apart from far-right Euroskeptic parties, the view in other member states is different: Being able to move around the EU is an inherent part of being a member. This is as true in Sweden as in Greece or Estonia or Portugal. It is part of being a first-class European citizen.

This attitude doesn’t exist because British people are more xenophobic than others. Indeed, by some measures, they are more pro-immigrant, but they categorize immigration differently. The majority of British citizens don’t see other Europeans (if they consider themselves Europeans at all) as fellow citizens but as deeply foreign—in some senses more foreign than non-Europeans from former British colonies in India or Africa. As a result, they see the European project—indeed Europe itself—as alien.

Exceptionalism goes beyond borders: It goes to the heart of what political authority means. British political discourse is very rarely about what is to be done together as Europeans; it is far more about what can be extracted from Europeans. EU legislation is seen as having been imposed on the U.K. And when it benefits U.K. citizens, they claim it’s a British initiative. The last time a major European initiative struck a chord with the British public as a common endeavor was the single market, in 1986, for which then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed credit and which accelerated trade between Britain and the rest of what was then the European Economic Community.

EU political authority is simply not seen as legitimate. Britons don’t see themselves as participants but rather as sullenly attached if not colonized people. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt even compared the EU to the Soviet Union. Absurd as the comparison may seem to peoples who were actually colonized, let alone actually colonized by Britain, it strikes a chord in a country that was the world’s dominant power for so long.

Because the EU is not seen as legitimate, Britain never felt committed, in a political sense, to being part of the club. Today’s professed pro-Europeans’ transactional attitude is as true of the new post-Brexit campaign People’s Vote as it was of the 2016 Remain campaign. Thus former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, in his book How to Stop Brexit, which I reviewed in Foreign Policy, argued that the EU should offer Britain a new deal that makes it stay. Even today, campaigners backing a second referendum (and for the long extension that would make such a vote possible) are apparently ready to run under the slogan: “Remain and Reform.” Their message to Brussels is essentially, “Sorry about leaving you, but if you change, I’ll take you back.”

These days, no one seems to remember the British proposals for red and yellow cards to block EU legislation. Or double majorities for the European banking authority, to pick two proposals from former Prime Minister David Cameron’s renegotiation in 2016 cooked up with the help of the Euroskeptic think tank Open Europe, two of whose former directors, Neil O’Brien and Mats Persson, were part of Cameron’s European policy team.

The debate within the EU has moved on—from how to placate the half-in half-out U.K. toward addressing European challenges, such as eurozone reform, developing new border policies, or addressing populist demagogues’ threats to the rule of law.

The first reason that EU leaders should reject May’s requested extension is that nothing will change. Suppose there’s a long extension to Article 50 and another referendum, and Britain’s “it’s not me, it’s you” Remain 2.0 campaign wins by a smallish margin? Britain’s old truculent habits will return, intensified. “Give us the special deal we campaigned on,” the next prime minister will insist, “or we won’t be able to hold our people in line; they’ll demand yet another referendum.”

Second, what would a new British government be likely to use the power and influence of its membership to do? The so-called reform it will most likely seek (proposed, for instance, by Nick Clegg and Tony Blair) is reform to freedom of movement. This will give oxygen to populist parties in northwestern Europe that want to make the Polish plumber and Bulgarian builder an issue again.

Britain wants to be able to turn this inherently divisive question into a weapon in internal EU politics. Not only will it open fault lines between northwest Europe, where Europeans go for higher wages and more opportunities, and the south and east, where they come from. Crucially, it will also give anti-EU populists an opening to divide Europe further. Britain will, for its own selfish reasons, push the European agenda toward issues in nationalist populists’ territory.

Moreover, London has already shown, by the prime minister’s decision to get the Conservatives in the European Parliament to vote to protect Orban from the EU’s Article 7 rule of law proceedings, that it is not only willing to attack the rights of Eastern Europeans at home; it’s also willing to sell them out across the EU.

Britain likes to say the European Union is unnecessarily complicated. But much of its complexity—a separate justice and home affairs pillar; the existence of Schengen as a separate area, rather than a border-free travel across the entire EU; that only some countries are members of the eurozone; Permanent Structured Cooperation instead of a straightforward EU-wide defense commissioner—is a British creation. Other countries have opted out of some of these schemes, but only the U.K. stood outside all of them. The British government now blames the EU for the complexity created in order to appease Britain in the first place.

A Britain that returns will steel itself, to quote the leading Euroskeptic commentator Janet Daley, to “wreck the EU.”

Finally, there is the matter of the Western alliance. It would be far better for Britain, which is not currently comfortable in the EU’s political and economic arrangements, to leave and find itself a new role, while continuing to support the Western alliance as an independent (if somewhat small) pillar of its own—perhaps through a European Security Council or similar arrangement. Better for it to be a good neighbor than a recalcitrant, unhappy member.

I would love Britain to be fully committed to taking part in the unification of what is, after all, its own continent. But that’s not in the cards. Better for Britain to leave, on the orderly terms provided in Theresa May’s deal, and use the transition period to negotiate a more stable future relationship, than to return as a half-prisoner determined to wreck what it considers to be its jail.

Do not waste time on a second divisive referendum that, even if it’s won by Remainers, would only continue the British psychodrama. There’s no need for extra time, except maybe for minor technical details. For their own good, and for Britain’s, the EU 27 need to refuse Britain an extension.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the Executive Director of TRD Policy.

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