Last efforts in Brussels to help the British get out of Europe?

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Theresa May conferring with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel at the Brexit summit in Brussels (Screenshot via YouTube)

The European Union Heads of Government this week had good reason to throw the British out so they can get on with important business concerning their joint future.

As Lee Duffield reports, they took over, telling the United Kingdom to finally make a plan for leaving the EU and ruling on a timetable for that — to 31 October.

A weak British Prime Minister, Theresa May, with no Parliamentary majority and few ideas, started the week taking up other people’s time — having inconclusive talks with the Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn, then rushing to Berlin to see Chancellor Angela Merkel and Paris to see President Emmanuel Macron, before the special Brexit summit of leaders at Brussels on Wednesday 10 April.


After letting the deadline for secession from the EU go by on 29 March, she was fighting off the provisional replacement date, Friday 12 April.

She was also talking about an extension up to 23 May, giving her Government time to propose a new deal, maybe a customs union to keep the EU and UK still close together as suggested by Corbyn.

The date was important as Britain would be able to leave on 22 May and thereby not take part in elections to the European Parliament scheduled for the next day.

A fall-back date talked about was 30 June, though it was unclear what should happen in that case about whether to have Britain in the elections — another great mess.

European leaders, including chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, sized up the actual chances of Britain settling on a realistic deal and set the “Halloween” extension date: leave by 31 October, if not earlier.

To help sort out these games about dates, Europe watchers have been publishing flow charts that represent the different possibilities, as with The Guardian this week.


Why would it matter?

As often said, if the British walk out with no agreement on future relations including commerce and trade, all projections indicate a serious economic setback, especially for the United Kingdom. The heavy costs of tariffs and hiked-up immigration controls would be back after more than 40 years. The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland would have to be fenced off from each other or face up to a nightmare of patrols and smuggling – of people, guns, drugs and other commodities – with Ireland as a doorway to the whole EU.


Bernier and others have been demanding to know exactly what the British Government and Parliament want. Why more extensions? If they keep giving more time, to what end?

In particular, certain EU governments including Austria, France and Greece have taken exception to continuing insults from leading British Conservatives frenziedly opposed to any integration with Europe.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, chief of the “European Research Group” faction in Parliament, this week publicly called for a British guerrilla campaign to stop the EU doing its work if the UK stayed in any longer. They would, for instance, use every chance to stop the EU budget going through.

This would be ill-received in particular by EU member countries singled out by English “leave Europe” campaigners for exclusion or deportation: Poles and other Eastern Europeans, people who eat garlic, “gypsies”, and so on. Those “unseemly” Europeans have to try and put aside the bad feeling while deciding whether to accept the appeals from London for more leeway and more time. 

It was a reminder of the level of prejudice generated in England against having the EU as a tier of government, something like the Federal Government in Australia — even though it’s fully democratic and the UK, as a powerful “state”, would always be a leading player within it.

The British side are now being held to co-operative behaviour, restricting their engagement in major EU decisions, while required to participate in next month’s European Parliament elections — or else leave with no deal on 1 June. Under the new strict regime, the regular leaders’ summit in June will check on compliance, though this is not being set up as an actual moment for expulsion from Europe.


Against the attention-getting behaviour of a state that says it wants to secede but won’t, the European Parliament and the other components of the EU have begun concerted work on managing for the next decade of change.

A joint study called Global Trends for 2030: Challenges and Choices for Europe has set out what they are interested in getting done in areas like climate change, energy, the demographic make-up of society or urbanisation. It lays out points of the agenda:

The next decade will be defining for the future… Seismic global power shifts; pressure on liberal democracies; challenges to global governance; the transformation of economic models and the very fabric of societies; new uses and misuses of technology; contrasting demographic patterns; and humanity’s growing ecological footprint — the world is well on its way towards a new geopolitical, geo-economic and geotechnological order. What role will Europe play…? How can the European Union ensure that it does not end up a middle power, caught between the United States and China? What will it take for Europe to hold its destiny in its own hands in 2030?

The Executive Commission of the EU has been directing action against unemployment, set as a policy for “social” Europe, meaning government in the interests of all. It says 12.5-million jobs have been created in Europe over five years, getting unemployment down from 10.2 per cent to 6.5 per cent, declared still unsatisfactory because it means 16 million Europeans remain out of a job, over one-fifth of those among the young. They have been succeeding with other measures such as reducing the percentage of women unemployed compared to men, or reducing the share of four-year-olds in pre-school, meaning opportunity for mothers to be in the labour market.

The blurting voices and waving notice papers of the fragmented and inept British House of Commons display no competence for handling anything really serious like all that.

The European leaders who this week found themselves arriving once more in Brussels for yet another special session on the Great British distraction faced a “tough ask”. As on other occasions over the decades, several would be declaring themselves fed up and ready to let the Brits go their own way. In 2019, after three years of carry-on and indecision, the prospect of just closing it down and tossing out the whole Brexit bunch must me a tantalising reality.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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