In the face of an unpopular deal negotiated by Theresa May, we must now extend Article 50 to avoid a 'no deal' or 'blind' Brexit.
As a proud pro-European, I have a question which I ask my friends in Brussels to answer honestly, even if only in their own head: do you really want the UK to stay within the EU? If you do, then we will need more time to find the way to do so and the only way to do that is to extend Article 50. Not the transition, but the negotiation period itself.
Coming from Scotland, I have said for many years that Brexit feels like a series of parallel negotiations, even parallel universes, that only occasionally collide. Scotland voted by a massive margin, unanimously across every counting region, to Remain, and yet we face losing our European status.
Northern Ireland voted, albeit by a smaller margin, to Remain yet is also being dragged out, undermining a still fragile peace. Even London voted significantly to Remain and yet has had little voice subsequently. On my irregular visits to Westminster, I feel that the universe there is particularly parochial and self-regarding, and only occasionally considers reality from a Scottish, Northern Irish, Irish or, indeed, European perspective.
However, as we have seen over recent days, it turns out 27 is a bigger number than one after all. The ongoing debacle in the UK Cabinet as the reality of the negotiations in Brussels has collided with the fantasy world of the UK Conservative party has laid bare the complete inadequacies of both the UK Government and Mrs May’s Brexit plan.
Scotland is a separate conversation from this. In the referendum, every single political party backed Remain and Scotland has become even more pro-EU since as we have watched with horror the Brexit shambles unfold. The Scottish Government’s compromise proposals for the UK to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union have not only been rejected but entirely ignored. Mrs May promised a UK-wide solution would be reached before triggering Article 50 but no serious effort was ever made to engage with our proposals, nor those from Wales or Northern Ireland.
To me, it is clear that there are significant elements within and around the UK Conservative Party that fully intend to force either a ‘no deal’ Brexit or a so-called, no detail “Blind-Brexit” (one that lacks a vision for the future UK-EU relationship), with the express intention of undermining it afterward. Either scenario will have disastrous consequences for all our citizens, for harmony on our continent and the talks on the future relationship.
I fully understand that the EU must deal with the UK, and the UK Government, as it finds it. Indeed, I have considerable sympathy with Guy Verhofstadt when he said that the EU should not give an extension to Article 50 to save a UK political party. It is not the current policy of the UK government to even ask for an extension.
But this is not a stable government, and the consequences of that instability and disunity of the UK government and the lack of consensus in the UK Parliament will also affect the EU. I’m sorry, but hopes for an orderly exit are threatened by the instability in the UK.
If an unsustainable fudge is approved now then I fear it will collapse soon after. A change of Prime Minister, a collapse of the UK government or a second EU referendum are all possible. Public opinion in Scotland has become massively pro-EU, but across the UK the mood has clearly changed too.
The “deal” that is receiving so much attention is, after all, only the exit. This was the easy part. Brexit will not stop on 29th March next year and a fudge now will not ‘make this all go away’ as many on both sides hope. Indeed, if we hold our noses and approve a ‘no detail’ Brexit then I believe the potential for a major crash increases. This is because the options to fix it that exist now will no longer be on the table because we will no longer be at that table nor even in the room.
That is why, earlier this month, a cross-party group of UK MEPs from all points of the political compass (including the Conservatives) wrote to our colleagues asking them to consider extending Article 50. In contrast, the transition cannot be extended forever and the longer it remains in force, the more likely it is to be successfully challenged in law. Article 50 was never meant to be a framework around which to build the future relationship.
Although the EU cannot avert a ‘no deal’ Brexit if the UK chooses to pursue it, the EU can be ready to assist in avoiding it by leaving the door open for cooler heads, and warmer hearts, in the UK to prevail. Scotland will continue to play its part in that conversation. Whatever Scotland’s future, as an independent country or part of the UK, I hope that we can continue to work with our friends from across Europe to build a future for the entire continent.
But if you want the UK to stay, we need to start thinking seriously of how to extend Article 50.
Alyn Smith is an SNP Member of the European Parliament for Scotland.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.