France to UK: Hell no, you can’t delay

What do you do with a neighbor who doesn’t want to stay but still won’t go away? You give them a push — and France did exactly that yesterday and today to the Brexit-paralyzed UK. As Theresa May goes to the EU to ask for a longer delay without any evidence of parliamentary support for the deal she negotiated, French ministers publicly rejected the idea:

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Saturday that it was time for the Brexit crisis to end, saying that it couldn’t continue to dominate EU discussions.

“It’s time that this situation ended,” he told reporters on the sidelines of a G7 meeting in Dinard, northern France.

“We can’t live constantly with Brexit. At some point, there needs to be a departure. The British authorities and the British parliament need to understand that the European Union is not going to be able to constantly exhaust itself with the ups and downs of domestic British politics.”

“The British need to tell us very quickly how they are going to get out of this crisis,” he added.

Yesterday, the French secretary of state put it only slightly more gently. In an interview with the Guardian, Amélie de Montchalin declared that May had better come up with an ironclad plan if she wants the EU to give her more time past the April 12th deadline. Either that, or May will have to agree to EU elections in the UK and commit to constructive engagement in Brussels:

“The European council took a clear decision on 21 March … Another extension requires the UK to put forward a plan with clear and credible political backing.”

The council would then have to define the necessary conditions attached to that extension, she said. “In the absence of such a plan, we would have to acknowledge that the UK chose to leave the EU in a disorderly manner.” …

De Montchalin said Paris had “read with interest Theresa May’s letter to President Tusk. As the prime minister rightly wrote, the current impasse is not in the best interest of either the UK nor the EU. It cannot be allowed to continue.”

Ireland’s taoiseach Leo Varadkar expressed hope today that May could win a short extension to get Parliament on board with the Withdrawal Agreement. A veto, by France or any other EU country, “wouldn’t be forgiven” if it triggered a Brexit crash-out:

Speaking on RTÉ’s Countrywide programme, Leo Varadkar said that if one country was to veto an extension and as a result impose hardship on Ireland, as well as the Netherlands, Belgium and France ‘they wouldn’t be forgiven for it’.

Any such country he said ‘would know they might find themselves on the other end of that particular veto power in the future’.

He said the European Council is working to agree Brexit on the basis of unanimity and it is rare that a veto is used.

Mr Varadkar said that it tends to operate by consensus and while that takes time and can be messy, it is why Europe works.

However, it might not be the worst outcome either:

EU leaders are concerned that the continued uncertainty around the Brexit process in the U.K. will pose a threat to the integrity of the European Parliament election in May. They also worry that a half-in-half-out U.K. could adopt a policy of future non-cooperation that the EU would be unable to control.

That concern arose over the last couple of days after Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg floated it as a possible strategy if the EU refused to reopen negotiations on the WA. Even if the strategy wasn’t necessarily deliberate, the situation with the UK still functioning as a full-fledged member in Brussels in the middle of an ugly divorce from it would hardly be optimal for the consensus model on which the EU operates. One has to wonder whether Varadkar is engaging in wishful thinking, but France seems particularly clear-eyed about the potential catastrophe.

Furthermore, May’s own party isn’t backing the idea of participating in the next round of elections:

Theresa May has been warned that a long delay to Brexit could deal a fatal blow to the Conservatives, with one minister claiming that participating in the European elections would be a “suicide note” for the party. …

The education minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it’s important that parliament acts quickly now to decide what it is in favour of. We need to do that quickly because I think going into the EU elections for the Conservative party, or indeed for the Labour party, and telling our constituents why we haven’t been able to deliver Brexit I think would be an existential threat.

“I would go further and say it would be the suicide note of the Conservative party.”

May wants an extension to June 30th, but the EU elections will be held on May 23rd. The EU has already insisted that the UK would have to participate in those elections if they don’t leave by May 22nd. It’s possible that the EU could extend the deadline to that date, but it’s tough to see why they would. Parliament has rejected the WA three times already, none of those on particularly close votes. From the EU perspective, they’d be better off dealing with Brexit this week than on the night before elections across the continent.

Time continues to run out on all of these options anyway. May’s attempt to find a consensus with Labour and Jeremy Corbyn has apparently come to nothing except recriminations from all sides. Parliament plans to hold more “indicative votes” to find some terms for Brexit on which they agree, but two rounds of such attempts only came up with a rejection of a no-deal Brexit, and that only by one vote. Without accepting the WA, the deadline for Brexit remains this coming Friday. The EU commission won’t meet until Wednesday, the very earliest time to address May’s request for a delay. If there is no consensus at that point and May can’t get Parliament to bite the bullet and pass the WA, then it looks very much like the UK will crash out of the EU at the end of the week.

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