EU eyes Brexit flextension (again)

EU and UK flags Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Brexit deal is now in limbo after Tuesday's votes in the House of Commons

"The ball is not in our court. The balls are all stuck in the UK's net."

The EU diplomat I was speaking to was frustrated. Hugely frustrated that the EU's newly negotiated Brexit deal was now stuck in limbo after Tuesday's votes in the House of Commons. He was irritated too that the prime minister said the next move would be decided in Brussels.

"We've done our part," said the diplomat, who represents a key EU country.

"The 'what next' cannot be seen as our responsibility. We negotiated two Brexit deals with two different UK prime ministers over more than three years. Now we're asked to grant yet another Brexit extension. We have to dance like Pinocchio in this game that isn't ours. It's very upsetting."

But like it or not, Brussels is now the focus of attention.

Will the EU grant a new Brexit extension? If so, for how long?

The answer to these questions will most likely influence the next political events in the UK.

For example, if the EU refuses a new extension, MPs might well rush to approve the new Brexit deal, rather than face the possibility of no deal. The EU is hardly likely to run that risk though.

But if the bloc goes for a longer Brexit delay, then Boris Johnson will want to hold a general election (if parliament grants him one).

In Brussels, as European Council president, Donald Tusk, tweeted, some kind of new extension is seen as all but inevitable.

The EU doesn't need to wait for the prime minister to ask for one. Forced to do so under UK law (even though he made his personal opposition obvious) the prime minister submitted a letter of request at the weekend.

EU leaders are painfully aware that the length of any extension they now grant will be viewed through a political prism in Brexit-divided UK.

A short delay could be seen by those who want to Remain and who hope for a second referendum - as Brussels throwing the UK out on the streets. While a long extension could be perceived by Brexiteers as an EU attempt at holding on to the UK for dear life.

Anxious to come across as being as neutral as possible and to avoid becoming entangled in the bitter UK debate, many EU leaders seem to prefer adopting the UK request outlined in the prime minister's letter: a three month Brexit extension lasting until 31 January, to avoid a no deal scenario.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption As Donald Tusk tweeted, a Brexit extension is seen as all but inevitable

For the EU, any Brexit delay is a so-called 'flextension' - meaning the extension can fall way ahead of time.

In this case, as soon as parliament ratifies the new Brexit deal. But don't expect the EU to deliver its decision in a hurry. EU leaders are openly fed-up with having to interrupt busy schedules to rush to Brussels for more emergency Brexit summits.

They intend to try to agree the length of this new extension in writing, rather than in person. And this will only work if there are no major disagreements between EU members over the length of the new delay.

In the meantime, you can expect at least some posturing/grandstanding from certain countries like France, which want to keep the pressure up on MPs and the government.

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Media captionBrexit: What happened on Tuesday?

Immediately after Tuesday night's vote for example, the French Europe minister growled that "an extension is requested but with what justifications? Time alone will not bring a solution (to Brexit)."

EU leaders have welcomed the fact that on Tuesday - for the first time ever - a Brexit deal did get the nod from the UK parliament but diplomats point out that the reason they are all especially fatigued and frustrated by the one step forward, at least two steps back Brexit political dance in the UK, is because they fully appreciate this is not even nearly the end of the road.

What the EU and UK are grappling with now is merely the UK's leaving process. Real negotiations on the future trade and security relationship - including painful political trade-offs involving fishing rights, work visas and the UK's ability to do trade with other countries - only begin in earnest after Brexit.

The words of one exasperated EU diplomat from a country traditionally close to the UK were "I feel like this will never end."

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