by Ira Straus
Chair, Center for War-Peace Studies
22nd October 2019
What has gotten into Juncker and Macron? Will they go on promoting Brexit? Or can Macron go back to his better, long-extension idea?
People who are friends of the EU, many of them longstanding fans of both Juncker and Macron, have been wondering out loud what has gotten into them. Why have they been all but pushing for Brexit to be ratified and speaking out against an extension? This is a potentially historic political mistake.
I will try to give voice here to why many anti-Brexiters view this so severely. I will try to mince words as this is among friends, but I think it best not to mince words too much; it is important to get across how serious it is.
But I will also remind them of their option of returning to their wiser comments in the past in favor of a long extension; and of the importance of their beginning to work with Parliament directly and continuously, now that Parliament has opened up an indirect channel to them.
Juncker’s bad case for ratifying Brexit
Juncker’s argument for ratifying Brexit is prima facie inadequate. He says the EU made a deal with the Government of Britain, therefore the Parliament should ratify it. It is a leap in logic. Why should Parliament ratify a deal it opposes, from a Government it opposes? Why should he himself want it to, when he has always said he doesn’t want Brexit?
This deal runs contrary to what the majority of Parliament in fact probably want on Brexit, no matter how they feel constrained to vote by Party discipline and by fear of the alternative consequences with which they have been blackmailed. Through all the fog, it seems that a majority wants a softer Brexit that keeps the UK closer to the Single Market and Customs Union; and might support a confirmatory referendum to give the people the final say on whether to proceed with Brexit or not. Mr Juncker himself cannot help but agree with these objectives.
Parliament is surely right that it is a bad deal. Bad for Britain and the EU alike. Indeed, worse for both, despite a side-gain that some would argue the EU made, than the May deal that the Parliament already rejected and buried. Worse for both Irelands. Worse for Scotland. Worse for England. Worse for the continued stability of the UK; and with it, worse for European stability – which is the fundamental purpose of the EU.
Not so long ago, Mr Juncker would sometimes point out that he would prefer that there were no Brexit, and he supports a deal-Brexit only as a lesser evil than a no-deal Brexit. In presently saying instead, simplistically, that Parliament should ratify this deal, Juncker is not only meddling in British politics. He is meddling on behalf of the anti-EU side.
This is not, to be sure, the first time. The EU could always have been doing more to work with Parliament not solely the Executive. The executive focus was in keeping with its formal intergovernmentalism on the Council, but it neglected both the unique reality of the present British political situation — a Brexit being run by a minority Government on an anti-Parliamentary one-party basis — and the EU’s unique informal practices, dating to its founding era, of consultative engagement of all parties and branches of government and all major interests in society, not solely the executive representatives on the Council.
The EU could long have been communicating constructively with Parliament about what would be needed — what the Parliament could do — in order to achieve something closer to the shared preferences of both the EU and of moderate majority of Parliament. It could have been supportive of the Parliamentary efforts to moderate Brexit. It could have recognized the possibility of submitting any deal to a confirmatory referendum.
So doing could have given courage to Parliament years ago to proceed, by relieving it of the feeling of being a helpless voice in the wilderness.
Above all, the EU could have avoided speaking in a manner of reinforcing the PM’s claims, under both May and Johnson, that there was no choice except the PM’s own. Such discourse turned the EU, inadvertently no doubt, into a reinforcer of Parliamentary helplessness, and of the repeated blackmail of Parliament by the PM.
What Juncker is saying now is thus not entirely new. But it is a more extreme stance than in the past, and could quickly become considerably more damaging.
It is also more simplistic and ill-considered than in the past. There used to be a May Government that had not earned an extreme distrust. This has changed. The Letwin amendment allows, though it does not ensure, proper and thorough scrutiny by Parliament of the Johnson deal. Mr Juncker would, in ordinary logic, be speaking in a way that encourages this; and moreover, be supporting the efforts of MPs to attach a confirmatory referendum to Parliamentary ratification, along with any further efforts to close the residual legal loopholes hitherto discussed for the Government to proceed with a no-deal Brexit in case of ratification. What he has said until now tends instead to favour unseemly haste in order to get the “deal” through Parliament.
There is, fortunately, a second, wiser Commission narrative on extension to which he could still turn. Mr Barnier and others have spoken in the past of granting a long extension if it is for a referendum that Parliament has decided to call, or for negotiating the softer Brexit that has always implicitly been preferred by the majority in Parliament.
This earlier position can be revived. It has in fact been revived in a statement of France’s position by Mr Macron’s state secretary for European affairs (https://www.politico.eu/article/france-says-only-political-change-in-uk-would-justify-brexit-extension/), although not yet by Macron himself.
The earlier, long-extension statements, like the current one from the state secretary, were on the right track, but several things were missing in them. They were not stated often enough. They were allowed to get drowned out by the more frequent and forceful statements against a long extension or any extension at all. And they put the cart before the horse: They required the Parliament first to establish a plan that would justify a long extension, when it was the long extension that was needed first in order to give the Parliament the space to aggregate its factions and thoughts, work out its plan, and get it enacted over the head of an obstinate Executive. They neglected to establish the communications link with Parliament that would have enabled a coordination of their timelines, e.g. so the Parliament could move enough toward a plan in tandem with the EU also moving enough toward an adequate extension.
These gaps can potentially now be filled. Conditions have at last matured in the UK for filling them. It would be tragic for the EU if its own leading figures had in the interim given up their own maturity.
The Open Door for a Direct Parliament-EU Relation in Managing Brexit
Parliament is finally in the last several months beginning to act the way the EU had been waiting for three years for it to act; the way it should, arguably, have been acting from the start. In face of tremendous resistance from the PM and Party control system, Parliament has begun asserting itself on behalf of its moderate, pro-EU majority. It has even opened up a route for the EU to deal with it directly. It did this by passing unprecedentedly strict legislation that undertakes to confine the Government to acting as a courier between the itself and the EU Council on the matter of the extension.
Mr Juncker could be building on this. Building up the new communications channel with Parliament, for example. One might think he would be doing so at this very moment.
Yet it is at just this time that he has instead begun talking as if he has forgotten which side he is on. He has been speaking up for his foe Johnson against his friend the Parliament. No wonder his friends in the UK have begun wondering what has gotten into him.
The tragedy of Macron
Macron is doing no better. He is impatient with Britain. He has often been impatient with Britain, and not only with Britain. Impatience is one of his vices. He has the dream that, with Britain gone, the door will be open to his vision of remaking the EU. A more realistic view would be that it is Britain’s presence that enables him to continue with this dream and spares him facing the realities of the difficulties of remaking the EU. Brexit would bring only Brexit and its knock-on damages on all fronts, not an improved EU.
Macron doesn’t like impatience and recklessness, to be sure, when he sees it in the Yellow Vests. Yet the Yellow Vests have an alibi not available to him: they are just ordinary citizens; they were not elected by anyone to represent the nation as a whole and act responsibly on its behalf.
Impatience is no excuse
Being tired and impatient with something is no excuse for acting foolishly on the matter.
What Macron and Juncker are doing in their get-Brexit-done comments is much the same thing Trump did when he pulled Americans out of Syria, for the mere reason that he’s impatient with being there and paying the (marginal) cost for it. The knock-on costs of Trump’s decision have grown in a mere week to dangerous proportions. It is also much the same thing as what happened after Obama’s decision to pull out of Iraq for the sake of his same arguments for impatience with being there. It brought on the chaos that brought on ISIS that brought America back in more actively again and that now brings on Trump’s impatience.
The knock-on costs can be expected to rise to similarly dangerous proportions if the EU acts out of impatience and frustration on Brexit. Considerable benefits could ensue instead if it returned to patiently pursuing its fundamental interests.
That would be in keeping with its job description. It is an important part of the professional job description of all political leaders that they must tend to herding cats. Adequate politicians are the ones who have patience with the frequent impossibility of getting the cats together within the preferred timeframe, and proceed anyway along a sound course.
This is doubly the job description of diplomats, and of diplomat-politicians such as the heads of multilateral institutions. Herding cats is what their jobs are all about. Impatience from them is professional malpractice.
When did Juncker forget this? It is almost as if, in his last days in his office, he felt embarrassed about leaving Brexit hanging in a constructive ambiguity, and wanted to go out with a bang.
The other, better Macron of the 1-2 year extension
It is worth recalling that Macron, out of his very impatience, has been all over the field on the question of Brexit extension. He has been for no extension, a long extension of a year or more, and several things in between.
In previous rounds, even while he spoke mainly against extension, and successfully obstructing a constructive nine-month extension sought by most EU leaders, he also spoke in favour of a long, one-to-two year extension. He could have said that this was because it would give the UK the time to put itself back together politically, get its two decisive parties somehow out from under the domination of their extremist wings into which they had fallen, and sort out Brexit in a manner more legitimate than its extremist-deflected Government was doing. He actually said it was so the EU wouldn’t have to keep contemplating another extension every few months; but that was also a reasonable motive, certainly better than using impatience as a motive for imposing a no-deal Brexit.
Macron can still go back to his 1-2 year extension proposal. It would be transformative.
The time was probably not ripe for such an extension when he first spoke of it. Since then, many of the illusions of Brexit have been punctured. Moreover: Parliament itself has matured. It is today starting to use its long-dormant ultimate powers to reconstructing Brexit, in the process taking the first step toward rebuilding British politics. Now is the right time to proceed with the long extension.
It will require a year at minimum to put back together the British political system; one that, despite its historical magnificence, has fallen into dysfunction, with extremists dominating in its two dominant parties and the center failing to hold. The center party, the Liberal Democrats, has regained some strength in recent elections, despite the near-impossible hurdles facing third parties in a first past the post system. The moderates in the two major parties have also begun to regain courage. In face of the strict disciplinary threats they have faced, some of them have actually shown considerable courage, and taken the first steps both toward a new center and toward recovery for their old parties. It is not a short road to be trod. But it is a road that has finally come into view. And it is a road that must be trod, one that the rest of Europe and the West need to see trod as Britain is the mother of all their democracies. This is no time for the EU to be blocking it off and terminating the process.
The blessings that have come of the extensions
The EU should count its blessings from the long delays in Brexit, frustrating though they are. Britain’s frustrating experience of facing repeatedly the necessity of delay in order to avoid self-inflicted disaster: this has discredited the Exit option, partway in Britain itself, and more so across the Continent. The much-resented distraction of Brexit has proved the best way of dealing with the existential crisis that the referendum had seemed to be bringing to a head. It has brought the EU three years of relative calm and restabilization.
The EU would be committing its own act of self-inflicted disaster, were it now to turn around, dishonor the UK’s request for another extension, and impose Brexit gratuitously. It would undo all the work of discrediting Exit in the last three years. It would restore Exit as a real option.
And it would be a hard form of Exit that would be restored as an option. It would turn Exit back into something that seems patriotic no matter the cost, a heroic response when faced with an angry impatient Brussels.
All the EU’s righteous irritation at Britain, for having so long tried its patience and acted with so much arrogance, would come back to haunt it. There are millions of people who, thinking as they do outside the EU’s narrative framework, would see this as confirming the counter-narrative instead: the one that sees the EU itself as arrogant and punitive, and praises the UK for courageously resisting it. It goes on to scoff at the seeming expectation in some circles that the UK, after suffering from a hard Brexit, would “learn its lesson” and come crawling back to the EU to rejoin.
In that particular scoffing, it is realistic. The only way one could hope a Brexited Britain might return to the EU in this era would be if it had Brexited with a deal, and a deal at that which provided for expedited re-entry on essentially Britain’s old membership terms; but that is not going to happen, as UK Brexit negotiators do not seek such a provision. Instead of thinking about returning, a hard-Brexited Britain, one driven out in part by the EU itself by refusing an extension, would be promoting national pride in its standing up to the EU and bearing the suffering for its freedom.
Hard separation from Europe would impart to UK politics a fatal schismatic dynamic, carrying it ever farther from the EU; and reeling toward the opposite ends of the domestic ideological spectrum, with both extremes fantasizing about what Brexit makes possible for regenerating the nation. The UK itself would be at serious risk of breaking apart; after which the ascendant ethnic nationalisms would by natural reflex entrench themselves with a further surfeit of ideology.
Yet the severe alienation of Britain is not the worst thing a semi-forced Brexit would do to the EU. It would also spread the pride in nationalist separation once against across the EU. Pride in suffering in the name of the nation’s freedom is not unique to Britain. It is part of every national narrative. Every EU country has its public figures who dream of replaying the national epic, with themselves cast as the hero of the drama. Some of these figures are already in office, including Johnson, with his manifest dream of being another Churchill.
The consummated Brexit would lose anew this spirit upon the EU, and with it, the contagion of exitism. There are many large and growing parties in Europe that have flirted with exitism in the past, but avoided it when in office, and in face of the long depressing Brexit experience have turned further away from it. After a live Brexit, it is likely, if only by dint of statistical probabilities, that some of them would find in it the inspiration to revert to exitism.
Continued delay would, by contrast, allow the EU to continue to reap the benefits that delays and extensions have already brought. Exitism would continue getting ever more deeply discredited.
Last and not least, the ongoing delay-discrediting of exitism could lead to a revocation of Brexit itself. Indeed, today it has a better chance of leading to this than at any time since the initial referendum. A further lengthy extension would make this a prospect co-equal with a deal-Brexit and a no-deal-Brexit. Revocation would in turn drive a final nail into the coffins of Continental exitisms.
The EU has every interest in this.
The true interests of the EU and Parliament coincide: mutual communication and a long extension
The permanent interest of the EU is to maintain the maximum relationship with the UK that the UK itself will support. This gives it an obligation — to itself, if no one else — to give the UK time to establish an authentic deliberative process to decide on what relationship it can support. Parliament is finally finding the courage to defy the Executive and enact laws that move the UK in this direction. It is no time for the EU to be undercutting its friends.
The Parliament’s interest is to get a lengthy extension and to communicate directly with the EU so as to make effective use of it. The EU’s interest is the same.
Given sufficient time, and given proper support from the EU for Parliament instead of for the Executive that has been undermining Parliament, it is likely that Parliament will be able to establish an appropriate process for deliberating on Brexit and reaching a nationally acceptable conclusion. It will not be easy to do this against the will of the Executive, to be sure, but it has come into view as a real prospect. It will require true heroism, not the ersatz heroism of Johnson’s Churchill mimes. It will also require substantial time to get it done, whether by way of forming a genuine government of national unity over the heads of the extremist factions in the major parties, or by way of setting up a referendum, which even if mandated in the next weeks will require many months to implement. Insufficient time to carry out such a mandate is one of the things that has militated against garnering the will at Westminster to establish the mandate.
These are the temporal realities that
constrain policy. They point to granting an extension of not less than a year.
 The argument is about the EU Customs Union being better off for Britain not being kept in it, as long as Britain is not intending to remain in the Single Market as well. It is a highly debatable claim on its own terms. Losing Britain to the Customs Union is ipso facto a loss. There is as much inconsistency introduced into the Customs Union by this deal, having Northern Ireland in it de facto but in the UK’s de jure, as from having the UK in it de jure as a whole under May’s deal. This entire argument is overshadowed, or ought to be, by the uncontested damage to EU interests from the more distant economic relationship mandated in the present deal than in the May one.