Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
For two years the European Union, personified by Michel Barnier, displayed a tungsten-like inflexibility during the Brexit negotiations.
It constantly rejected innovative solutions to difficult problems, insisting that only previously tried and tested models or existing templates could be considered for Britain’s future relationship with the EU.
It was a rock against which many ideas, and successive Brexit Secretaries, foundered, and is part of the reason why we still find ourselves without an acceptable deal.
But it also made the EU’s stance entirely predictable. It is safe to say no-one from the UK side emerged from any of the talks in Brussels surprised at Barnier’s responses. All the unpredictably has come from our side of the Channel.
However, that has suddenly changed. As we head towards the latest crucial European Council Summit on Wednesday night, we cannot be sure how leaders of EU27 countries will react to the Prime Minister’s request for an extension to Article 50 beyond April 12.
Publicly there are conflicting signals being sent by member states. And speaking privately to people at all levels in Brussels, it is clear those differences on the best way to proceed are real, if more nuanced than the sound bites might suggest.
Emmanuel Macron, the French President, is the most publicly outspoken member of any hard line squad, expressing his opposition to a further extension and suggesting that a clean break would be preferable to many more months of uncertainty as he seeks to implement his vision for the future of the EU.
“We cannot avoid failure for them,” he said of the UK’s inability to agree a way forward.
In recent days he has been joined by Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian Chancellor. After Theresa May announced on Tuesday she would seek another delay he said: “There is, from the current point of view, absolutely no reason for an extension since the chaos in Britain has not changed.”
Mixed pronouncements have also emerged from the European Union institutions. On Tuesday Donald Tusk, the European Council President, tweeted: “Even if, after today, we don’t know what the end result will be, let us be patient.” And today it appears he will recommend a long “flextension”. But over at the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker has been less accommodating, telling MEPs on Wednesday that unless the withdrawal Agreement was agreed by April 12, “no further short extension will be possible.”
So what can the Prime Minister expect on Wednesday? My discussions here in Brussels suggest that member states and political parties are divided into three camps.
One group would like to let the UK go and use us as an example in their fight against rising eurosceptic forces within their own countries at May’s European elections. They believe that the immediate disruption presented by a no-deal Brexit, for both the UK and EU, would be a powerful electoral weapon. This faction does not only include leaders like President Macron whose patience has worn thin, but reportedly also includes others who are usually more sympathetic towards the UK but now face eurosceptic parties in their countries.
The second group favours granting a long extension of Article 50 on condition of a second referendum in the hope this could stop Brexit altogether. Indeed, in the European Parliament, socialist parties have called for a second referendum since they believe that the result could be overturned.
However, a third group – including quite a few Christian Democrat politicians I have spoken to – ask what is the point of a second referendum if the UK votes to leave again? While they also think that the EU should grant the UK a long extension of Article 50, they believe that by the UK participating in May’s European Parliament elections and leaving the departure date open-ended, the Brexit process would either eventually fizzle out, or events such as a general election would take Brexit off the agenda.
This lack of an obvious consensus from the EU27 could make the Prime Minister’s task more difficult on Wednesday when she seeks the extension to Article 50 and means the outcome is difficult to read. On the other hand, one message comes across loud and clear from every capital, EU institution and MEP. No-one wants to be blamed for forcing the United Kingdom out. If a no-deal Brexit is to happen, they want to be able to pin the responsibility firmly on the us.
Consequently, no member state is yet ready to veto a request for a long extension. However much President Macron and others are tempted repeat Charles De Gaulle’s famous “Non” to the UK, the prize of keeping the UK in, the desire to deny those in the UK calling for a no-deal Brexit and the need to counter eurosceptic parties across the EU, remain powerful incentives for not kicking us out yet.