Brexit's Catch 22: London awaits EU move as EU waits for UK's

The plan was to reach a consensus, allowing the bloc's governments to sign off on the recommendation via a written procedure, without convening a second leaders' summit in less than two weeks.
The plan was to reach a consensus, allowing the bloc's governments to sign off on the recommendation via a written procedure, without convening a second leaders' summit in less than two weeks.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Mr Boris Johnson's abrupt push for snap elections, and Mr Jeremy Corbyn's response that he will agree only if the European Union decides on Friday (Oct 25) to grant a comfortable Brexit extension, has put an obscure group of Brussels-based diplomats in an awkward position.

The group of EU ambassadors known as Coreper II is due to meet on Friday morning to discuss the length of the third extension due to be granted to the United Kingdom. The plan was to reach a consensus, allowing the bloc's governments to sign off on the recommendation via a written procedure, without convening a second leaders' summit in less than two weeks.

That was before British Prime Minister Johnson announced on Thursday his push for an election on Dec 12 in order to end the Brexit gridlock. Opposition Labour leader Corbyn, whose backing Mr Johnson needs in order to get the two-thirds majority required for a national vote, said his decision depends on the EU's response.

Both may have to wait, as the EU itself was also seeking clarity from the UK before making a decision.

Four diplomats familiar with the deliberations in Brussels said it is unlikely the Coreper - which stands for Committee of Permanent Representatives - will reach a concrete conclusion. One of the diplomats said that the envoys and their governments are being dragged into British politics, as any decision puts them at risk of being blamed for either favouring the opposition or the government's view in London.

"Let's wait and see if there will be an election before we do fiction politics," Ms Amelie de Montchalin, France's junior minister for European affairs, said in an interview with RTL. "If there are elections, not just called for, but announced and scheduled, then we can take a decision."

At a meeting on Wednesday, all EU27 ambassadors agreed that an extension should be granted, thus removing the risk of a cliff-edge exit next week. But France resisted the majority view of granting a three month extension, insisting instead on a short delay only to allow the ratification of the proposed Brexit deal.

The meetings of the Coreper are meant to be preparatory. They are not public, there are no press opportunities and - usually - no communiques of their conclusion.

They occasionally take place in a secure room, without phones or aides allowed. While the gatherings have recently drawn the spotlight, with journalists getting detailed readouts of the discussions on Brexit, never before have the eyes of an entire country debating snap elections been so focused on a group barely known to anyone outside the Brussels bubble.

 

Nevertheless, the final decision on whether to grant an extension - and if so for how long - still lies in the hands of European Council President Donald Tusk and the unanimous blessing of 27 EU leaders.