Apr 7, 2019

Crunch week for Britain

Felix Salmon, author of Edge

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

It's crunch week. Britain is due to leave the EU without any kind of deal on Friday — an outcome only the most extreme Brexiteers want.

Between the lines: Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar summed up the sentiment on Friday. “None of us want a no-deal next week," he said. "I know the UK doesn’t want it, and Europe doesn’t want it either.” At the same time, as the second deadline approaches (March 29 has already been and gone), Varadkar was adamant that "we don’t want to have a rolling cliff-edge" with extension after extension.

  • Brexit has already cost the U.K. 2.5% of GDP since the referendum, or about $40 billion per year, according to an estimate from Goldman Sachs, and that's while the nation was still part of the EU. The cost to the rest of the EU has been significant too, largely driven by uncertainty. While almost no one wants the U.K. to leave the EU, Europe's willingness to tolerate the deafening chaos from across the channel is shrinking to zero, especially in France.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May did give Remainers a glimmer of hope on Friday. Writing an official letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, she for the first time admitted that she was willing and able to hold European Parliament elections on May 23. Her party hates the idea of contesting European elections, but her government is now making all necessary preparations for that vote. May added that she would prefer to leave the EU before that date and cancel the election, but Parliament has repeatedly voted down all her attempts to do so.

  • Tusk's preferred outcome is a "flextension" that gives the U.K. as long as a year to come up with an exit deal. Under such a deal, Britain's EU membership could be cut short if and when an exit agreement is finalized. Tusk's proposal would need to receive unanimous approval from all 27 EU states at a summit meeting on Wednesday, which won't be easy. And even May hasn't signed on to the flextension idea yet, since rolling cliff-edges have to date been her only negotiating leverage.
  • How it works: The EU wants to see May making visible progress on cobbling together cross-party support for a deal. So far, there's little evidence of that.

The bottom line: If Tusk can't get unanimous approval for another extension on Wednesday, Britain's prime minister will be faced with a stark choice. Either she drives her country off a cliff by letting it crash out without a deal or she destroys her party by repealing Article 50, keeping the U.K. in the EU after all. Her words and actions to date indicate that she would probably end up choosing her party over her country — unless the U.K. Parliament somehow takes the decision out of her hands.

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