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OPINION: Why extend the Brexit uncertainty?

Sunday, 10th February, 2019 5:00pm

AMIDST all of the ongoing confusion about Brexit, much recent talk has centred on the possibility of extending the deadline for Britain leaving the European Union beyond March 29th in order to head off the possibility of a ‘no deal’ exit. It is thought likely that the EU would agree to it, but there is no point in doing so unless it has the potential to lead to an orderly withdrawal.

Of course, none of this may happen unless the British side requests an extension of time and all the other 27 EU members agree to it. Before they do so, however, if requested, the EU leaders will also need to ask some questions of their own, among them why exactly Britain needs to extend the timeline for withdrawal and how much more time do they need – weeks, months, a year? – and is it, realistically, likely to bring the sides any nearer to a resolution or just prolong the agony and the confusion?

If they want to get the matter sorted out before the European Parliament elections at the end of May, any extension could only be for a matter of weeks because if the withdrawal goes ahead before the election, the number of seats in the EP is to be reduced from 751 to 705, because of the Britain’s absence, but the Republic of Ireland will get two extra seats, one for Dublin and the other for Ireland South. If they exit on schedule on March 29th, existing MEPs from the UK will have to vacate their seats then.

However, if the extension is for several months or a year, it is probable that the European elections will have to be held across the United Kingdom. Could this opportunity also be used for some sort of a plebiscite on Brexit, be it on the withdrawal deal or even revisiting the leave/remain question again? It would be entirely up to the British Government as to what they want to do in that regard.

The revamping of the European Parliament had been planned in the context of Britain having left the EU by the end of May, so the rationale for and wisdom of having EP elections in the UK while the Brexit process is still ongoing will have to be teased out. The length of any extension of time that may be granted would have a bearing on this and, if by some quirk of fate, Britain decided not to leave the EU, they would be entitled to keep their MEPs.

If a lengthy extension is granted, it cannot be for more of the same confusion and the ostrich-like reluctance of British politicians to grasp and prepare to accept the harsh realities of their decision to leave the EU. They need to appreciate why the Irish backstop was agreed by their Prime Minister, even though she is dishonourably trying to backtrack on it at the moment, and realise that the EU stands four-square behind Ireland on this issue which is designed to prevent Ireland – North and South – becoming collateral damage of Brexit.

The Good Friday Agreement needs to be protected even more so now that there have been some unwelcome stirrings of dissident paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland in recent weeks. A political vacuum is always dangerous and can quite easily be taken advantage of by the men of violence, and the vast majority of the people of the island of Ireland do not want a return to the senseless carnage that achieved nothing over the final 30 years of the 20th century and which people hoped had been left behind forever.

A ‘hard’ Brexit or a ‘no deal’ one have the potential to take us back to the old days of a ‘hard’ border between the Republic and Northern Ireland and people in the border areas are aghast at the prospect as it would hinder them going about their daily lives. The only people who might benefit from such a scenario – as they did in the past – are smugglers and it would be a sad day for us to see criminals thriving while law-abiding citizens would have their lives unnecessarily complicated by it.

During any extension of time for Brexit, it behoves reasonable, middle-ground MPs across the floor at Westminster to get together and face the realities of a withdrawal deal that must be equitable to both the EU and UK and to ignore the well-heeled extremists in the Conservative Party who would relish a ‘no deal’ Brexit just for the heck of it, all the while demonstrating their crass ignorance of its implications for ordinary people.

And, if they cannot agree, let there be another general election over there that would, hopefully, solve the impasse in British politics and give the UK the mandate that current Prime Minister Theresa May is currently lacking and, hopefully, would not have the likes of the Democratic Unionist Party being the tail which wags the dog.