Timothy Garton Ash – The Guardian
Macron may have doubts, but if the deal isn’t approved the EU must grant the UK an extension – for its own sake as well as ours
‘At the moment, the EU has got itself in exactly the right position.’ Angela Merkel, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron at the EU leaders summit, 17 October 2019. Photograph: Olivier Matthys/Reuters
Granted, Brexit is driving everyone mad. We Brits owe all our European friends a sincere apology, a bottle of whisky and complimentary tickets to a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of Hamlet. For Britain is now Hamlet, forever agonising over whether Brexit is to be or not to be.
So I can perfectly understand why Europeans such as French president Emmanuel Macron just want to be shot of us, so as to push ahead with an important, ambitious agenda for the whole European Union. Nonetheless, it remains in Europe’s own enlightened, long-term interest to go the extra kilometre. This means, concretely, that if the British parliament does not approve Boris Johnson’s new deal this week, the EU should offer an article 50 extension, as formally requested in the letter sent (though childishly not signed) by Johnson.
I offer four arguments for this, all made from the point of view of the EU and Europe as a whole. First, a no-deal Brexit would be hugely damaging to Ireland and other parts of Europe geographically close to the UK. The amendment proposed by the independent Conservative Oliver Letwin and passed by parliament on Saturday is intended, above all, to preclude no deal. Letwin himself has said he will vote for Johnson’s deal, if it comes through parliament in the correct legal form and subject to proper scrutiny.
Second, there is the question of who takes the blame. We know from a leaked document that the Johnson team of hard Brexiteers were preparing to blame any failure to get a deal on the “crazy” intransigence of Brussels. If, however, Macron were to make an unholy alliance with Johnson to push Britain out of the door on 31 October, then my side of the Brexit argument – the 3R side: for referendum, remain and reform – would be bound to place part of the blame on our European partners. At the moment, the EU has got itself in exactly the right position: it has showed sufficient firmness to defend the interests of Ireland and the single market, and sufficient flexibility to make any accusation of a punitive “Versailles” treaty completely implausible. For example, the EU breached its own red lines in reopening the withdrawal agreement, to make possible the new deal. It’s important that the EU stays in this sweet spot.
Third, it would be better for the long-term future of Europe if the UK stayed in the EU. There is no good outcome to Brexit, but the least worst way forward is for Britain to vote in a second referendum to remain. And the best way to achieve that is for parliament to vote for Johnson’s deal but subject to a confirmatory referendum in which the British public would be asked to make a binding, final decision on a single, clear question: do you want Britain to leave the EU on the terms negotiated by this government, or do you want it to stay in the EU? To be or not to be.
Since this government is dominated by hard Brexiteers – and what is envisaged in the new deal is a hard Brexit for England, Wales and Scotland, with a softer one only for Northern Ireland – no leave voter could plausibly complain they were only being offered the choice between a flaccid Brino (Brexit in Name Only) and staying in the EU. Hundreds of thousands rallied outside parliament on Saturday to show their support for such a people’s vote. Even more important than the activists are the opinion polls that now persistently show a majority for remain. How absurd it would be if the UK was to leave the EU, in the name of respecting “the will of the people”, at precisely the moment when the will of the people had changed.
I know that many continental European friends who were once sympathetic to a second referendum now think the EU would be better off without us. But if Britain leaves now, it will take another five years to work out what the new economic relationship with the EU will be and whether Scotland will leave the United Kingdom, and then a further five years to see how all this beds down in practice. By that time, the EU and what is left of the UK will certainly have diverged. Britain will be worse off economically than it might have been, but probably not so badly off that stubborn English voters, in particular, would swiftly choose to return. If Brexit goes badly for the UK, that will ensure a thoroughly unhappy and bad-tempered relationship across the Channel, negatively affecting the vital cooperation on foreign and security policy.
If, against the odds, Brexit goes well for Britannia, then nationalist populists like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, the Italian Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen will start to say, in those immortal words from the movie When Harry Met Sally: “I’ll have what she’s having.” Either way, it’s bad for the European Union.
And there’s a fourth argument that should clinch the case. At the moment, Europe is the last best hope of a values-based west, standing up for democracy and the rule of law. Confronted with the demolition of liberal democracy in EU member states such as Hungary, this is one of the most important tasks for the next chapter of EU history, with new leadership in all European institutions, a freshly elected European parliament and a seven-year budget to be agreed.
Prominent among the European leaders crowding round to congratulate Johnson after the deal was done last week was Orbán – he and Johnson are brothers under the skin. Johnson’s schoolboy manoeuvre of sending an unsigned, photocopied letter requesting an extension (as mandated by the so-called Benn act), together with a signed one encouraging the EU to refuse that request, shows just how contemptuous he is of a law passed by Britain’s sovereign parliament. Although his lawyers probably ensured that his conduct did not violate the letter of the law, it certainly violated the spirit of the law.
Fortunately, the checks and balances of British liberal democracy are working. In a magnificent, muscular verdict, the supreme court found that Johnson acted unlawfully in trying to prorogue parliament for five weeks. And on Saturday, a democratically elected parliament once again took back control from a bullying executive, to ensure proper scrutiny of a hastily made deal which has epochal implications for both Britain and Europe. Whether this ends with a confirmatory referendum, as I hope, or with a general election, which seems more likely – or with parliament narrowly approving Johnson’s deal, which I would lament but accept – it will be a lawful, democratic process. And a lawful, democratic process is something Europe should always support, even if it takes a little longer.
- Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist. His latest book is Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World