EU to Grant ‘Flextension’ on Brexit

The UK is being given yet more time to figure out the obvious.

As the UK continues to war with itself over its desire to simultaneously leave the European Union and have all the benefits of membership, leadership in Brussels is leaning toward yet another delay to allow them to come to their senses.

The Evening Standard reports:

European Union leaders today moved towards agreeing a three-month “flextension” for Brexit, opening a window for a possible winter general election.

Irish premier Leo Varadkar proposed a new January 31 deadline during a phone call this morning with EU council president Donald Tusk.

European Parliament chief David Sassolii also backed the date, calling it “advisable to accept the UK’s request for an extension to January 31”. If confirmed by the other EU leaders, including France that had suggested a shorter extension, Boris Johnson would be told he has 12 weeks to get legislation through Parliament but could have Brexit earlier if he can speed it up.

The EU move could create time for a general election, providing Labour agrees, which was in doubt as new polls showed the party trailing.

Britons narrowly approved a June 2016 referendum that was to trigger withdrawal from the EU by March 2019. The Prime Minister who called for the vote, David Cameron, did so hoping it would simultaneously appease nativist Brits, demonstrate the utter stupidity of leaving the Union, and give him leverage to negotiate better terms with Brussels. When voters unexpectedly went the other way, he promptly resigned.

His successor, Theresa May, negotiated multiple deals, none of which were able to come even close to getting approved by Parliament. She even called an election to improve her party’s standing in Parliament, which backfired. She ultimately resigned in frustration.

Her successor, Boris Johnson, has done everything in his power—including an illegal suspension of Parliament—to force Brexit by Halloween. He has been repeatedly stymied by his own Members and the country’s equivalent of a supreme court.

It seems rather obvious from this side of the Pond that the Brexit vote was a mistake. Granted, it seemed obvious in 2016. Hell, it seemed obvious in 2015. But it’s much clearer now that offering citizens a choice between a current reality with some real downsides and a chimera was foolish. Rather, if a vote was necessary to appease populist sentiment—and Cameron maintains to this day that it was—then it should have been between the status quo and a specific Brexit deal that had been negotiated with Brussels.

Rather than yet another inconclusive election to form yet another weak government, Britons should be given another bite at Brexit. But, rather than choosing between Remain and Leave, it should be between Remain and the most recent deal that Johnson was able to negotiate and which Parliament failed to ratify.

We’ve long understood that a “hard Brexit”—leaving with no deal at all—was foolish. Johnson has tried by hook and crook to force one (ostensibly in a game of chicken with Brussels in which they would somehow offer a better deal than let the UK crash itself into a wall) but his own Members have thwarted him. So, that’s simply not an option.

The real options are between taking the not-very-excellent deal now on the table or remaining in the EU and continuing to work from inside to shape the terms of membership. The latter seems obviously smarter. But, again, that was the case at the outset.

Back in July 2016, shortly after the referendum, I called on EU leaders to stop their hysterics and work to keep the UK close. While they’ve been less generous than I would have hoped, they’ve largely done so. Instead, it’s been the UK leadership that’s been “behaving like pouting children,” refusing to chose from among available options. It’s time they stop.

FILED UNDER: Europe, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    James, you’ve summed it up perfectly.

  2. grumpy realist says:

    Actually, a decision hasn’t been made yet. The EU is asking, logically enough, what in the hell good another extension would do for the situation. It wants the U.K. to use the time to actually do something. There’s also the fact that holding another election or another referendum would probably result in the same split situation–a hung parliament or another 48-52 Brexit vote (this time possibly the other way.) The problem isn’t the negotiation between the U.K. and the EU; the problem is that the Brits themselves are totally split on what relationship they want to have with the rest of Europe. (And Leave’s deliberate nebulousness on the topic was to hide exactly how split the Leave opinion was: “leave”, but everyone had a different idea as to what that meant.)

    Cameron was also an absolute ass for not insisting on a super-majority for his referendum. But then, Cameron has adequately demonstrated his lack of ability.

    Unless the Tories and The Brexit Party come to some agreement, a General Election is likely to see the Leave vote split between the two parties, possibly letting Labour to scoop a lot of otherwise Tory-leading seats. Which no one, aside from Corbyn, actually wants to see happen.

    (P.S. James–you’ll never get the U.K. politicians to stop acting like pouting children on this matter. The tabloids will cheerfully continue to put all blame on the EU and how “the EU is bullying us and not treating us with respect!” They don’t care about what is really going on. Just as long as they can sell papers and keep the belligerency going.)

  3. Michael Cain says:

    …then it should have been between the status quo and a specific Brexit deal that had been negotiated with Brussels.

    The EU’s institutions’ position has always been that they don’t negotiate with themselves. That is, they won’t talk to a member about exit terms until they’ve given their Article 50 notice. IIRC, the UK had raised the subject multiple times in the past, and were always told “No. Give your Article 50 notice.”

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The real options are between taking the not-very-excellent deal now on the table or remaining in the EU

    Both of which involve compromises when the Leavers seem loath to make any compromises at all. Therefor they will insist on committing suicide.

  5. gVOR08 says:

    But it’s much clearer now that offering citizens a choice between a current reality with some real downsides and a chimera was foolish.

    The referendum passed something like 52-48. I recently saw an article saying polling shows a new Brexit referendum would fail by about the same margin. But not because anyone’s changed their mind. The claim was that there was a very stark generational split, and enough pro Brexit voters have since died to change the outcome.

    I think we in the US have a weak version of this. We Boomers lean Republican. Not me, you understand, but many of us. But not nearly as much as our predecessors in the so called “greatest generation”. And new, young, voters register every day.

  6. Kathy says:

    When a commercial airplane has an engine failure, the procedure is to find the nearest airport and land, even though the plane can continue flying for hours and hours on one engine.

    Recently, an airliner in Europe did the latter. They descended and slowed down (one engine can’t push you as fast as two), and landed safely. The result is that the pilots and the airline are under investigation for unsafe practices.

    Why land as soon as possible if the plane can keep flying? because something else might go wrong with the other engine, and a plane without any engines can only glide for a short time (google “Gimli Glider,” it’s an interesting story). Or something else might go wrong with the plane in other ways, and you don’t want several problems.

    So even when you know what the result of a referendum with tremendous consequences will be like, you take all the precautions you can anyway, in case you’re wrong. You state it’s non-binding and for consultation. You require a 60% majority to leave. You require Parliament to ratify the results. You make leave contingent on a kind of deal.

    There are so many options available, it boggles the mind Cameron did it like he did.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    I do not understand UK politics, or EU politics. My impression after all these months is that no one in the UK understands UK politics. But I’m 4500 miles away, which should qualify me as an expert consultant. My impression is that the EU, rather than being seen as forcing them out, would grant the UK extensions forever. As long as they stay in, let them run whatever internal clown act they feel like.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    @gVOR08: There was a nice tongue-in-cheek comment over at EUReferendum the other day about a holiday which will exist in the EU 100 years from now: “2119, October 31. The U.K. requests another yearly extension on Brexit, which the EU grants. No one remembers what Brexit was supposed to be, but the extension has now become a tradition and a holiday.”

  9. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy: When you said “Gimli Glider” I was picturing a hang glider carved out of stone by dwarfs. Turned out to be a fascinating little story. Thank you.

    The hero had sailplane experience. He apparently was a stick and rudder guy, a pilot. Part of the 737 problem is that many airlines, particularly second and third world low cost airlines , just train people to push buttons per the checklist.

  10. JohnSF says:

    I don’t want to be seen as making excuses for Cameron’s catastrophe, but some of his decisions can become comprehensible viewed in terms of intra-Conservative politics.

    The nominally advisory status of the referendum, and related lack of constraints on campaigning, no serious determination of the choice available, and no requirement for a “supermajority”, was originally largely intended to avoid any requirement on the government to be “neutral”.
    It also avoided a massive row with the Right in Parliament and via the Eurosceptic inclined pro-Conservative press, whinging “it’s not fairrr…”

    I suspect Cameron also wanted the threat of a potential Brexit win as leverage in negotiations with the EU.
    Use that to coerce concessions he could trumpet to the public and the Party base as victory over the Continentals, shoot UKIP’s fox and wrong-foot the Opposition, and there he is, the Conservative hero who has resolved the Party internecine war on Europe.
    Next General Election in the bag, the Party at large forgives his sins re. coalition with the Libs, gay marriage legislation, environmentalism, “heir to Blair” etc.
    And at long last he can contemplate the blessed relief of getting the Party Eurosceptics to just, for once, please, shut the f*%k up after twenty five years of non-stop moaning.

    Then, the campaign goes badly; and polling shows large sections not concerned much about Europe as such, but intent on voting “Leave” just to poke the government in the eye.

    So Cameron tries to make people treat the referendum seriously with the (constitutionally questionable) statement:

    “This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.”


  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    …Cameron did it like he did.

    He chose that route because he truly believed that Remain was a lock and didn’t want to be accused of rigging the election with all sorts of provisions that “would thwart the will of the people.”

    The GOP (and the US as a whole) made similar mistakes about the same time. Curious.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @grumpy realist: Yeah, it’s a knotty problem. On the one hand one might expect that the EU would eventually tire of the drama and have a final “line in the sand.” On the other, this situation really does resemble the types of talks going on with NK on nukes.

    The World: This is it. You have to come to your senses and give up your nukes!
    NK: Or what? You’re gonna blow up the world? Really? I’m sorry, but color me skeptical.

    Oversimplified, I’ll grant, but it has the same feel to me.

  13. JohnSF says:

    James, your suggestion of a second referendum, deciding between Johnson’s Deal and Remain is entirely sensible.
    And therefore has little chance of occurring.

    Run the numbers in Commons (and country) and only an Opposition motion is likely to take this course; that automatically solidifies Conservative resistance.
    And at present Labour still can’t get off the fence.
    The Corbynites and a good chunk of the “moderates” still seem inclined to favour “election first”; but then many then say “but election not yet”, for various reasons. But also don’t rule out referendum first either.
    OTOH an indeterminate but significant number of “Labour Leavers” inclined to resist referendum as convinced Leavers or out of fear for their Leave-voting seats.

    Deadlock. Again.

    Beyond that, any referendum legislation would be the signal for guerrilla warfare in Parliament beyond what we have even seen to this point
    – the options to be voted on
    – binary or multiple
    – if binary which
    – if multiple which and how voted
    – actual wording of the ballot
    – the determination of how the choices are to be presented i.e. what IS the Deal (esp. as future trade relations still partly open, and Brexiteers would moan on about “future nature of EU”)
    – vote thresholds, if any
    – who votes (i.e. do resident EU citizens and UK citizens abroad get to vote this time)
    – policing of the campaigns, funding, media, social media, role of govt. etc.

    In short, a horrorshow.

  14. JohnSF says:

    Amid all the lunacy, there are some grounds to smile.
    Notably Speaker of the House Bercow
    In Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, govt. Leader of the House (also member for the 18th Century and Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Annoying Condescension):

    “It is quite clear that the sovereignty of this House did not fall on us like a comet from heaven. It is the people’s sovereignty delegated to parliament…”


    “Absolutely fascinating but we’re not going to embark on a philosophical discussion on the matter of sovereignty. This treats of the business of the House for Monday”


  15. Michael Cain says:

    Looking like the EU27 decision may be put off until Tuesday next week, after they know if Parliament will support a general election. France may just be talking tough. OTOH, I could see them insisting on something short term that holds Corbyn’s toes to the fire.

  16. Kathy says:


    When you said “Gimli Glider” I was picturing a hang glider carved out of stone by dwarfs. Turned out to be a fascinating little story. Thank you.

    You’re welcome. It’s one of those rare accidents where so many things go wrong, yet no one dies and few are injured. The plane was even put back into service eventually.

    It’s also quite illustrative of responsibilities. Yes, the pilots made a mistake when ordering and checking the fuel, as did the fuel technician, but why weren’t the fuel gauges functional, and why weren’t they required in the Minimal Equipment List (MEL)?

    Do you know what is in the MEL? Those little ashtrays on the lavatory doors. the plane ins’t deemed safe to fly without them. Yet fuel gauges? Sure, go ahead! Astonishing.

    Anyway, the pilots eventually managed to land as safely as possible under the circumstances, and they were lucky to have competent ground controllers who were able to help. remember, the transponder wasn’t working, so getting them accurate info on altitude and speed took some doing.

    What this illustrates is that the situation was resolved satisfactorily becase everyone involved worked together to resolve it. quite the reverse of how things often end up in politics.

    Can you imagine the ground control people saying “Hey, pal, you messed up with the fuel calculations and now you want me to save your skins?” Or maybe “yeah, well, you shouldn’t be flying an American plane anyway. Why don’t you buy a fine Canadian airliner instead?” Or taking a vote and deciding it’s best to let the plane crash?

    Seriously, think of Brexit(*), or McConnell refusing to cooperate in 2016 to root out foreign interference in the election, of the gaggle of Republicans defending high crimes as well as statutory ones, etc.

    (*) Just managing to stay on topic!

  17. grumpy realist says:

    @Michael Cain: If you had an “e” at the end of your name I’d be making a comment about how you’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off….

    (Someone over at the Irish Times said The Italian Job and particularly that one line made him think of how the whole Brexit vote was carried out.)

  18. Kathy says:


    Thank you. I didn’t know much of that.

    I’m tempted to quote Sheldon Cooper: “an understandable, but not excusable, error.”

    I suppose he was playing the odds, which is another tool of rather limited use. Take the airliner example. A plane is perfectly capable of finishing most journeys on one engine, and odds are good there won’t be any other problems. But the consequences if there are other problems involve the loss of a number of human lives, as well as a valuable asset. So you shouldn’t take that chance even if the odds of failure are only 1 in 100.

    Same with Cameron. The consequences of failing to secure a favorable result for remain were, well, what we’re seeing play out now.

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy: I mentioned the 737 problems above. The Indonesians have released their report on the Lion Air crash. They cite nine causes, the absence of any one of which, would have prevented the crash. They cite Boeing, but also seem to be even handed, citing the FL company that provided the faulty angle of attack sensor (and just had their certification pulled), Lion Air maintenance, their crew training, and the crew themselves, while noting the pilot had the flu and the copilot was awakened at 4 AM with short notice to substitute on the flight. As with the Gimli Glider, and most modern airline crashes, it’s not a low probability fault, it’s a chain of low probability faults.

  20. Kathy says:


    As with the Gimli Glider, and most modern airline crashes, it’s not a low probability fault, it’s a chain of low probability faults.

    That’s true of almost all aircraft accidents. A few, like the Miracle on the Hudson, boil down to one thing. In this case, the engines ingested some geese and shut down.

    I don’t know as much about older aircraft accidents, but a few show do show this pattern. Like the mid-air collision above the Grand Canyon in 1956.

  21. JohnSF says:

    I could almost feel sorry for Cameron, were it not for the damage he has inflicted on the country.

    I think he genuinely wanted to drag the Conservatives (kicking and screaming) into the 21st Century.
    Now his only chance of avoiding being PM since Lord North is the strong competition of May’s disastrous “Red Lines” and Johnson’s sheer manic mendacious buffoonery.