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Donald Tusk is right, Britain does need more time for Brexit – so it can hold a Final Say referendum

If we decided to stay, there might be a heavy price to pay for the ‘betrayal’ of the 2016 vote. But it would be the only way to allow the EU to move on

John Rentoul
Tuesday 16 April 2019 16:14 BST
Donald Tusk refutes claims from Brexiteers that UK would 'disrupt' EU processes during extension

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, told the European parliament today that Brexit can be stopped, and that the postponement to October could give the British time to “rethink” – implying support for a new referendum.

He said that one of the EU leaders had last week “warned us not to be dreamers and that we shouldn’t think that Brexit can be reversed”, but he went on: “We need the dreamers and dreams. We cannot give into fatalism. At least, I will not stop dreaming about a better and united Europe.”

His words prompted a sharp response from Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit representative: “I am against Brexit – leaving the EU – but it is not our decision. It was a decision of the British people.”

It is unusual to see two EU leaders, both dedicated to the ideal of European unity, tearing lumps out of each other in public. Tusk, in effect, saying: “Give those troublesome Brits a second chance”; Verhofstadt saying: “Leave it, Donald, they’re not worth it.”

But Tusk is right. He sees more clearly than his more ideological colleague that our failure to leave the EU on time is an opportunity for the dreamers dreaming of a united Europe. He realises that the British parliament is unlikely ever to agree the terms of our departure. He knows that neither a new prime minister nor a general election is likely to change that.

A new Conservative prime minister might win the party leadership contest by promising to leave the EU without a deal, but the House of Commons has shown it will not allow it. In the end, any prime minister who tried could be brought down and replaced by someone who would ask for a further extension.

And would a general election result in the return to Westminster of more than 320 MPs committed to a no-deal Brexit? Tusk knows it would not. He also knows, because it is his job to coordinate the responses of EU leaders, that, having granted the UK an extension twice, they will do so again. They do not want to be blamed for the dislocation and economic damage – especially to Ireland – of a no-deal Brexit.

Which means that those who want to stop Brexit have the chance to dream. The long extension gives Britain the chance to plan for another referendum – as the only way to resolve the three-way split in the country, reflected in the Commons, between the deal, a no-deal exit and staying in the EU.

And if EU leaders do not want to be accused of being “dreamers”, they can make a practical argument. If Britain is never going to leave, it will need another referendum at some point to legitimise that decision. The alternative is to drift indefinitely, staying in the EU by repeated extensions without ever admitting that this is what we are doing.

Verhofstadt said: “What my fear is, is that instead of killing Brexit the decision could risk killing Europe, at least bog it down again for years, putting our energy in negotiations with British leaders like Mr Corbyn or Mr Johnson, who in their heart despise Europe.”

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But that quagmire would be worse if Britain were still pretending it was trying to leave. If we decided to stay, in a Final Say referendum, there might be a heavy price to pay in the short run for the “betrayal” of the 2016 vote – but it would be the only way to allow the EU as a whole to move on to more important things.

It is not up to EU leaders to tell us how to run our affairs, but Tusk is right that they should give us the time – and every encouragement – to hold another referendum to put an end to the deadlock.

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