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Brexit withdrawal debate set to reach its denouement…perhaps

 Will the British Parliament be able to draw a line under the withdrawal deal on 12 March, the view from Europe. Credit:  Ivan Marc
Will the British Parliament be able to draw a line under the withdrawal deal on 12 March, the view from Europe. Credit: Ivan Marc

The saga that is Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU) is expected to either come to a definitive conclusion or to at least produce a pathway to a conclusive decision. But the views on the final outcome differ widely in both the Britain and Europe.

For the freighting community the 12 March vote in Britain’s Parliament on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal is crucial. However, this time most observers believe that an extension to the withdrawal timetable will be necessary unless a no-deal outcome is achieved.

An extension will only be considered if there is a clear path to a definitive conclusion at a later date. Once the decision has been made on how the United Kingdom (UK) will leave the EU discussions on a trade deal can begin, with some warning that those negotiations will be even tougher than the withdrawal agreement.

For some in the UK, an extension to the withdrawal process will further weaken May’s position vis-à-vis the EU. The Sunday Times believes the EU has, “viewed the prime minister’s negotiating tactics with a mixture of bewilderment and incomprehension,” and is “tired of Westminster’s games.”

According to the Brexit-supporting UK paper (The Sunday Times is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch), Europe need not be concerned: “An extension of the Article 50 process, without a clear aim in mind, entirely tilts the balance in favour of Brussels. Britain will be in the position of supplicant, needing more time because the prime minister could not get the backing from her own party for her own deal. A weakened prime minister is thus rendered even weaker, in Europe’s eyes, by any extension.”

For others, an extension to Article 50 is a negotiating ploy by May to undermine the EU’s negotiating position. Following an extension to Article 50, Britain would be in a position to take part in the upcoming European elections in May, in which Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will be elected.

“The Brits would then have a say in determining the programme and composition of the new EU Commission (after Juncker), as well as on the budget up to and including 2027 for the Union they want to leave – including veto rights. That would be nothing short of a disaster for the EU. It would be hugely susceptible to blackmail, and May could play cat and mouse with Brussels,” claimed Austria’s daily, the left-leaning Der Standard.

In Malta, Brexit feelings are running high as the conservative daily, The Times of Malta, claims the British Government are acting like gangsters.

According to the Maltese paper, the British are negotiating without a detailed mandate from Parliament, while the British Conservative Party only represents 29 percent of the electorate.

“Europeans are astonished that this is the way things are done in the country which claims to be the oldest democracy… It is farcical and does not deserve to be taken seriously. What the UK has been trying to play is an old negotiating trick applied by gangsters who use threats and run down the clock when they are incapable of achieving their objectives by negotiation.”

Meanwhile, historian Timothy Garton Ash, a frequent contributor to The Guardian in the UK, wrote for Italy’s centre-left daily La Repubblica, “The European choice on Brexit specifically will hinge on the extension of Article 50. A short extension, which is now inevitable, will only help May to pile the ‘my deal or no deal’ blackmail pressure on wavering MPs – and, with a little help from Brussels, she may finally succeed.”

He goes on to argue, “Only a longer extension, for nine months or one year – which means tackling the difficult issue of British representation in the new European Parliament from the outset – would allow for a proper national debate, culminating in a second referendum, and bring new possibilities of Britain staying in the EU. This is short-term pain for long-term gain.”

In the Czech Republic, anger appears to be the main emotion for the liberal daily Denik, which sees major difficulties with a postponement of the British withdrawal, although the newspaper concedes that delay is preferable to a hard Brexit.

However, the newspaper argues, “It’s questionable whether a new referendum would solve anything. Britain would then perhaps remain in the EU but the whole thing would leave a nasty aftertaste. From today’s perspective the divorce would be the best option – and as planned, on 29 March.”

Perhaps it is the Irish, who most agree would have the most to lose from a hard Brexit, who should have the last say. A hard Brexit would bring the prospect of a hard border between the north and south of the island.

According to the Irish Independent, May’s plan appears to be the only viable alternative right now. The newspaper is resigned to months or years of debating Brexit, but it says there is “nothing rational about Brexiteers who are determined to get out at whatever cost.”

The Irish Independent went on to point out that, “At the very least an extension might allow the UK to figure out what Brexit means. However, it also runs the risk of something business can’t afford, allowing uncertainty to reign supreme for months.”

The potential consequences of Brexit are many and varied according to the European press, with some believing that ‘there are none so blind as those that will not see,’ while May’s parliamentary weakness is also seen as a stumbling block, both for the no-deal Brexiters and the remainers.

Or for Sweden’s daily, Sydsvenskan, it could be a turned into a strength, “With just two weeks to go before B-day, MPs can hardly expect the current agreement to be renegotiated. Theoretically that could increase May’s chances of getting votes on her side.”