As has been widely reported, the European Council agreed the UK government’s request for an extension of the date set for it to leave the European Union. No-one expected the Article 50 extension to come without conditions, but few were able to accurately predict the nature of the condition that would be imposed, which is the approval by the House of Commons of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement (EC Decision, 22.3.2019: para. 9). In the days leading up to the extension request, major news sources mooted all manner of likely (and unlikely) conditions - with the suggestion that the EU 27 might require a second referendum or general election being the most favoured predictions (see, for example, Guardian, 14 March 2019; New Statesman, 19 March 2019).
This is perhaps not the time to call attention to the weak judgement that lies behind so much of so-called expert commentary on the Brexit negotiations, but it is important to identify what lies behind the failure of most of the mainstream media to anticipate that the EU 27 would be deeply invested in the withdrawal agreement. Underlying much of the debate on the withdrawal agreement - from both Leave and Remain perspectives - is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the EU is the principal author of the legal document and political declaration of which it is comprised. This refusal is manifested most clearly in the constant naming of the withdrawal agreement as “May’s Deal”, and not, as it truly is, an agreement made between the UK government and the EU 27 after the EU 27 had comprehensively (and rightly) rejected “May’s Deal” - i.e, the Brexit White Paper.
The refusal to acknowledge the EU’s part in the design of the Brexit withdrawal agreement is, however, part of a much more concerning aspect of the way the final stages of the Brexit debate are being played out in the UK. With the possible exception of the movement to revoke Article 50, very little thought seems to be given to the disruption various alternatives to the withdrawal agreement will cause to the EU. Are the other EU Member States really to wait patiently whilst the UK organises a second referendum; and will they be expected to endure another three years of the bitter internal dispute which will surely result - whatever the outcome of a second referendum? Yesterday’s European Council decision has bought the UK very little more time to decide on how to leave the EU in an orderly manner, or to decide to stay, but if it encourages deeper reflection on how our actions over Brexit impact on an already fragile European Union it will have achieved something.
European Council Decision taken in agreement with the United Kingdom, extending the period under Article 50(3)TEU, 22.3.2019.
Guardian, Brexit: how would an extension to article 50 work?, 14 March 2019.
New Statesman, “ Will the EU Grant the UK an Article 50 Extension?”, 19 March 2019. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2019/03/will-eu-grant-uk-article-50-extension