Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies at Oxford University, and recipient of the 2017 Charlemagne Prize.
When European leaders discuss Brexit this week, they should have in mind a fundamental question: Is the European Union just a union of governments or is it also a Europe of citizens, peoples, democracy and destiny?
If the answer is the former, they should continue the current mainstream Brussels line of trying to help the government (insofar as it still exists) of British Prime Minister Theresa May to get her deal over the line, and the United Kingdom out of the EU as soon as possible. If Europe is also the latter, as French President Emmanuel Macron has eloquently argued, then they must recognize that Ms. May’s government is the problem, not the solution.
More than 16 million British citizens voted for the U.K. to remain in the EU in 2016. Were European citizenship personal and direct, rather than contingent upon being a citizen of a member state, the EU would have a clear responsibility toward us, the British Europeans. If we, those who wish to remain, were a country, we would be the ninth largest in the union, after the Netherlands and before Belgium. We are joined by some three million citizens of other EU countries who live in Britain. Together, that makes 19 million.
Mr. Macron’s compelling vision of a Europe having sufficient power to defend our shared interests and values in an increasingly post-Western world will be impossible to achieve if British power is set to work against, rather than with, the grain of Europe. And European leaders should have no illusions: Such cross-Channel dissonance, not some harmonious strategic co-operation, will be the almost certain consequence of Brexit.
What, then, should far-sighted European leaders do? They should give Britain an Article 50 extension of up to one year, with the clear, stated purpose of finding a way forward that commands a majority in the British Parliament. In return, London should promise not to obstruct other developments in the EU. Crucially, the extension period could be terminated by mutual agreement at any point.
Contrary to first appearances, Donald Tusk’s statement yesterday that the EU will only approve the short extension requested by Ms. May if and when she gets her deal through Parliament does not foreclose this possibility. The EU has already made its best offer on the withdrawal agreement and the Irish backstop. If, against the odds, her deal does get through a third ‘meaningful vote’ next week, then only a short technical extension would be needed.
If, however, Parliament uses the next few days to take back control and offer a clear way forward, then EU leaders would be incredibly short-sighted not to grant a longer extension. Were a series of ‘indicative votes’ in the House of Commons then to produce a clear cross-party majority for a softer Brexit, be it just a customs union or the more ambitious Norway Plus (single market membership plus a customs union), and if – a big if – Ms. May finally puts country before party and accepts that cross-party majority view, then only changes to the Political Declaration would be needed, and Britain could leave by the end of June.
Some legal experts have suggested ways in which the current British Members of the European Parliament could have their terms extended for as long as Britain remains in Article 50 status. In the past, leading figures in the EU have told me that if there was the political will to support this, a legal way could be found. This would help to keep the British debate focused on resolving the central issue, but the largely settled view of the EU now seems to be that Britain must hold European elections or get out before the European Parliament meets.
For the EU now to agree to only a three-month extension would therefore virtually preclude the most promising way forward for Britain and Europe. Parliament would vote for Ms. May’s deal, but only on condition that there is then a “confirmatory referendum” in which the British people would be given the choice between that deal and remaining in the EU. To implement that second referendum properly – with European elections in Britain being a trial run at best, a rowdy distraction at worst – would require at least five months, taking us into the fall. Some recent polling shows small but growing majorities both for holding a referendum and for remaining in the EU.
The path to that result is still narrow and uncertain, but it is one supported by many millions of British Europeans and EU citizens living in Britain – and pays due respect to Scotland, a small but great European nation. Even a soft Brexit would be better than the half-baked, blindfold Brexit currently on offer, let alone a no-deal disaster. If European leaders believe in a Europe of citizens, peoples, democracy and shared destiny, they should give British Europeans this last chance.