Those of us who have made our lives in Brussels have always known it: EU referendums are a trick for idiots. The people can vote, but their vote will have no effect, not unless the vote is what the EU wants.
Of course, I thought that would not apply to the UK. We are not idiots.
Turns out, maybe we are.
The prime minister is now giving out signals she is willing to extend Article 50. Here is the first signal. As Mrs May left the EU-Arab summit yesterday she produced a new, shrunken assurance on Brexit day: “It’s still within our grasp to leave the EU by the 29 March,” she said. Not that Brexit is going to happen on the day she had repeatedly promised. Just that it’s there, around, in the neighbourhood of possibility.
Second signal, the story in the Telegraph this morning that Number 10 is preparing to ask for a two months’ extension to Article 50.
The decision for extension will be presented by the Government as a political manoeuvre to placate those Conservative MPs who are refusing to consider leaving the EU without a deal. Short term stuff. No more than eight weeks. Just enough time to get the assurances to the Withdrawal Agreement for which we have been negotiating and agree the deal.
Except there have been no negotiations for months, so that right there is a fraud. Nothing has changed in the Withdrawal Agreement since it was agreed between the prime minister and the EU last year. Not a word, not an inflection. Nothing.
There have been trips to Brussels by Mrs May and others, of course. But there have been no negotiations. The deal, a deal exactly to suit the EU, was agreed last year, and done. What Mrs May and the others do in their meetings at the Commission is nothing but a pantomime of a negotiation.
Fact: there are no negotiations going on now over the Withdrawal Agreement. A two-month Article 50 extension will continue the same level of negotiations, which is, exactly level zero.
One could say even that there have never been any negotiations, not negotiations as anyone British would understand the term.
As Yannis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister who was politically mauled when he tried to negotiate changes to eurozone demands on Greece in 20015, told the BBC last November: “Once the European Union presents a deal on the table, there is no way that it can be unpicked. It is take it or leave it. Nobody negotiates with the European Union.”
“Bureaucrats are like software, like algorithms. They have a check list. Mr Barnier has no mandate to negotiate with Mrs May on anything of substance. So he goes tick, tick, tick.”
Why then are the Commission signally that of course they would ensure that all 27 other member states would agree with them to an extension for “further negotiations” – when they know there are no negotiations at all?
Because it suits their technique. Since the foundation of what would become the EU, the tactic used by negotiators in getting what they want is “engrénage” or gearing – meaning no sudden demands, no sudden moves, only the gradual ratcheting up of a process.
The gearing has no reverse movement. Only forward click, click, click.
Or as Varoufakis identified, tick, tick, tick. What is important is to understand who it is who draws up any Brexit check list that must be ticked: Martin Selmayr, the German lawyer and bureaucrat who runs the European Commission, leaving Jean-Claude Juncker free to enjoy lunch.
He has only two aims when dealing with Brexit. Either manoeuvre the United Kingdom to stay and have its millions of pounds pour into the EU’s 2021 seven year multi-annual financial framework. Or leave and be punished. The report that Selmayr said, “Losing Northern Ireland is the price Britain must pay for Brexit,” sounds true to those of us in Brussels who have watched his skill in manipulation.
Which is why this idea of a two-month Article 50 extension would be deadly. It is the next click of the gear. Selmayr would nod through a two-month extension, allowing Mrs May to pretend she will go on with negotiations.
There will in fact be no more negotiations, only meetings.
At the end of the two-months extension, the Withdrawal Agreement on the table will be the same one on the table now.
The European elections will call for another extension fix of some sort – perhaps saying that MEPs such as myself can go on sitting in the European Parliament until the end of this year, “to allow more time for negotiations.”
That will be the gear turning again. No negotiations, just more time.
What the EU will be doing is waiting for either a general election in the UK, or a new prime minister, or the move for a second referendum to succeed. As long as the UK is still in the EU, any of that could stop Brexit.
The only way to stop the EU and their Remainer allies overturning the greatest democratic result in this country’s history is to jam the gears now. No extension, none, not for a moment.
I wish we could have a deal. I wish we could leave on easier terms than WTO. But most of all I wish were sure we will leave the EU on March 29th.
If we don’t, Brexit will not be extended. It will be extinguished. Click, click, click.
This article first appeared in Brexit Central on 25 February 2019