Report

Brussels Bets a Delay Until Halloween Will Spook Britons into Staying

With support for Brexit eroding, EU leaders hope the long postponement will kill the plan for good.

Pro-Brexit activist Joseph Afrane demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on March 20. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-Brexit activist Joseph Afrane demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on March 20. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

By postponing Brexit until Halloween, European Union leaders are hoping to spook a majority of Britons into remaining in the EU.  

After British Prime Minister Theresa May appealed for more time to persuade Parliament to back her unloved withdrawal agreement, European leaders handed down the new date of Oct. 31 on Wednesday following a long evening of negotiations—from which May herself was largely excluded—ignoring her pleas for a short extension until June 30.

Eroding public support for Brexit—as well as a massive pro-EU march in London last month and a dramatic “SOS” message projected on the white cliffs of Dover against a background of an EU flag—were key factors in the EU’s decision to delay Britain’s departure in the hope that the United Kingdom will change its mind. And some British officials say the six-month postponement could well work.

“I have always said that if Brexit is delayed for as much as 10 minutes, the whole thing is off,” said one senior U.K. civil servant with direct knowledge of the latest talks in Brussels, who is not authorized to speak on the record.

Under the new time frame, Britain may leave the EU at any time if May manages to get parliamentary backing for her withdrawal agreement—with EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier hinting that even more time could be given if there is still no consensus by the end of October.

The new date effectively rules out the prospect of the U.K. leaving the EU without a deal—which was also one of the few things that the fractious House of Commons was able to agree on over weeks of inconclusive votes over the direction of Brexit. “Once ‘no deal’ is no longer on the table, and there’s no longer a ticking clock, [May] loses her last two weapons,” the official said.

For months May had tried to cajole members of parliament into backing her unpopular withdrawal agreement with the threat of economic turmoil if Britain were forced to leave without a deal—but she still lost three parliamentary votes by huge margins. Last week, May began talks with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party in an attempt to forge a cross-party consensus, but few in Westminster believe that she will succeed.

“We’re all hoping that Jeremy isn’t foolish enough to walk into the trap” that May is trying to set, said a former senior advisor to former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair who asked for anonymity because of his current work as a government consultant. May “wants Labour’s fingerprints on Brexit so she doesn’t have to own the disaster herself … but doing a deal with May would split the [Labour] Party irrevocably.”

Corbyn himself wants Britain to remain in a customs union with the EU—which would have the U.K. closely economically tied to European rules without a political say in how they are made. But many senior Labour figures— notably Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer and Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry—as well as an overwhelming majority of party members insist that any deal must be put to the public for a so-called confirmatory vote.

May, for her part, has emphatically ruled out both a customs union and a second referendum. But she’s also ruled out many things that have subsequently come to pass—such as delaying Brexit. She has, in addition, lost control of parliamentary business—a key prerogative of the government usurped by rebel MPs—as well as of her own party as dozens of Conservative MPs regularly defy government voting instructions.

It’s hardly surprising, given her collapsing authority and growing list of broken promises, that the first casualty of the EU’s long delay could be May herself.

“Having sunk to humiliating herself and our nation by begging for more time in Brussels, the prime minister should not expect to be buoyed by her party’s support,” the prominent pro-Brexit Conservative MP Michael Fabricant told reporters Wednesday night. Fellow Conservative MP Anne Main blasted May for making the U.K. a “laughingstock” and called her latest appeal for a delay “appalling … we may be seeking an extension with no real sense of purpose.”

Conservative MPs tried and failed to oust May in a vote in December 2018—which under current party rules protect her from a formal challenge for a year. But rebel MPs have already launched a campaign to collect 10,000 signatures from Conservative members in order to change party rules and oust her. But even a new Conservative leader “won’t change anything … it’s going to be a hard Brexiteer, because all the [Conservative Party] activists want Brexit,” said one former Conservative cabinet minister who has regularly defied May in Parliament. “It won’t be [former Foreign Secretary] Boris [Johnson], he’s too hated by MPs. But it’s definitely going to be some Brexit headbanger.”

So with Labour unwilling to support May’s deal, and a new Conservative leader likely to be even more hard-line on Brexit than May herself, there seem to be only two ways out of the U.K.’s political deadlock: a general election or a public vote on Brexit.

Nether is likely to be good news for the Conservatives. A poll in early April by Kantar showed a sharp fall in Conservative support to 32 percent, down from 41 percent in the same survey in March. Labour was up four points, from 31 percent to 35 percent. At the same time, the survey found that 51 percent of Brits supported a second Brexit vote, with just 32 percent opposed—and that support for remaining in the EU was 41 percent versus 35 percent backing Leave, with 9 percent undecided and the rest vowing not to take part at all.

Of the 27 EU leaders who met to decide Britain’s fate, only French President Emmanuel Macron spoke against granting a long delay, arguing that Britain’s continued membership could disrupt his attempts to reform the union’s institutions.

“I believe deeply that we are carrying out a European rebirth, and I don’t want the subject of Brexit to get in the way of that,” Macron told a press conference before the summit. The six-month extension was a compromise—most other members, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, had wanted to give the U.K. an extra year to sort themselves out.

Nonetheless, there are signs that the Europeans’ patience is wearing thin. “I am shocked and saddened to see how many continental Europeans, including long-term friends and admirers of Britain, have given up on us,” the influential historian Timothy Garton Ash of Oxford University wrote in the Guardian this week. “We British Europeans should be under no illusions: the cupboard of goodwill is almost bare. Sickness metaphors abound. Brexit Britain is now seen as a poison, a gangrenous limb, a cancer to be cut out—the body of Europe healthier without it.” European Council President Donald Tusk clearly signaled that the U.K. could not procrastinate forever. “Please don’t waste this time,” Tusk told reporters was his message to Britain.

Urgency, however, seemed to be distinctly lacking in Parliament as it met to debate the delay. “Mood in Westminster feels a lot like the pressure valve has been released. They can’t force May out, cabinet seemed resigned rather than resigning. Everyone desperate for a break,” the Guardian political correspondent Jessica Elgot tweeted from the Commons. May, for her part, had nothing new to offer but to doggedly push on with her deal.

Two sets of upcoming elections could shake the British political class out of their deadlocked exhaustion. Local elections are set for May 2—and because of the delay in Brexit, the U.K. will now have to participate in European Parliament elections on May 23 as well. Traditionally, neither local or European elections have attracted much interest among the British public—and low turnout figures have given anti-government parties victories far out of proportion to their nationwide polling numbers. In the last European Parliament elections, in 2014, for instance, the virulently anti-EU UK Independence Party won 24 seats, Labour won 20, and the Conservatives won 19. With public disaffection with the political process running high, both these elections are likely to be massive protest votes, with both disappointed Brexit supporters and frustrated Remainers showing up to give the traditional parties a kicking.

Time has always been on the side of Remainers—both because the democratic legitimacy of the 2016 referendum erodes with every passing month and because older, predominantly Brexit-supporting voters are dying off and being replaced by new voters who are strongly pro-EU. And more time is precisely what the EU has reluctantly agreed to give. Opponents of Brexit both in the U.K. and Europe are hoping that Halloween this year will be the moment that the U.K. wakes from the nightmare of Brexit.

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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