Opinion

The next inevitable Brexit extension

What makes anyone think things will change between now and the end of January?

The "Hotel California" jokes are not getting old somehow. How could they, when they are completely true? It really is impossible for countries that have checked in to leave the European Union, even if they blow past three successive deadlines for withdrawal.

It has now been two and a half years since the United Kingdom set in motion Article 50 of the E.U.'s Lisbon Treaty. According to the terms of the treaty, Britain was set to leave the E.U. on April 29, 2019, regardless of whether a deal establishing the formal terms of withdrawal had been established. That didn't happen, and Theresa May, then the prime minister, asked for a paltry two more weeks. But April came and went with yet another request for an extension, one that was freely granted, giving Britain until Halloween. Now, with three days to go, the E.U. says they have until the end of January 2020. The latest so-called "flextension" even allows the British to leave before that if they can somehow arrive at a deal sooner.

This is not some supererogatory act of charity on their part. They understand that three more months are unlikely to change the reality on the ground in Britain. Boris Johnson lacks a clear majority in the House of Commons, and the Labour opposition says it will not support the general election he would like to hold in December. His attempt on Monday to force one failed when Labour MPs abstained.

So far Johnson is not admitting defeat and insists that he will seek another vote. But even if he does somehow manage to arrange for an election between now and January, he will be no closer to extricating his country from Brussels. Several things could happen as a result of an election, and very few of them make leaving the E.U. more likely.

For one, it is possible that the legislation calling for a general election could be amended to include terms that impose additional checks on Johnson's ability to negotiate — this possibility explains the support for a so-called "one-line" general election bill among various minor opposition parties, including the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists.

Then there are the election results themselves. Johnson's pitch for the leadership of the Conservative party earlier this year was, literally, "do or die": he promised that Britain would leave the E.U. by the October 31 deadline even if it meant doing so without a clear deal in place. For this reason his party party could easily fail to win a majority, which would almost certainly mean the end of his premiership. Johnson could also win a narrow majority that requires him to establish another coalition government with a regional party such as the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland, who wholeheartedly oppose a no-deal Brexit. And even a clear Conservative majority would not be a majority in favor of doing whatever Johnson and his cabinet colleagues decide — there are still a small but crucial number of pro-Remain Tories.

There is also the real if somewhat remote possibility that Johnson could lose at the ballot box altogether. A Labour government would very likely attempt to hold a second Brexit referendum, which would push the process back by half a year even if the eventual result were another vote in favor of leaving. The only consolation for Johnson and his colleagues would be that Brexit was no longer their problem.

No matter what happens, it seems very likely that no agreement on a potential deal will be reached within the U.K. by January 31 of next year. Rather than trigger a no-deal Brexit, the E.U. will respond to this as it has three times already, by giving the British yet another costly extension.

Time to start running for the doors.

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