(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Nigel Farage, the flamboyant Brexiteer and friend of Donald Trump, has for years used his seat in the European Parliament to merrily trash the EU and its institutions. He’s desperate to lose his job. “You don’t want me coming back here,” he told fellow MEPs this week, as he called on Brussels to block any future British request to delay Brexit beyond the March 29th deadline.
He makes a valid point. The longer the delay, the more likely it is that the U.K. will take part in European elections in May – meaning Farage will end up campaigning for another five-year term as the face of British anti-EU sentiment. Farage’s arch-nemesis Guy Verhofstadt, a federalist lawmaker, concurred: “I don’t want a long extension.”
Both men should prepare for disappointment. If Prime Minister Theresa May fails to get her Brexit deal through her dysfunctional parliament for a third (or maybe even fourth) time, she will request a delay to the Article 50 process from the EU’s 27 other member states. If that happens, it looks increasingly likely that the Brits will head merrily to the European polls two months after their country was meant to leave the bloc.
This institutional insanity will be the result of Europe’s leaders wanting to avoid the even worse outcome of Britain crashing out of the EU without an agreement. Political expediency might even tempt them to imagine a delay beyond November, when the new European Commission takes office. While some Brussels officials say talk of a one- or two-year delay is there to help May scare her own hardliners into backing her deal, many Europeans also seem relieved at the idea of kicking the can down the road.
This runs the very real risk of impairing the functioning of the EU, as I’ve argued before, and will no doubt fuel the kind of acrimonious internal squabbles that Brussels has avoided throughout the Brexit process.
While it’s hard to imagine any member state vetoing an extension, it’s also hard to imagine all member states being thrilled about the U.K. keeping its seat at the table for as long as two years. Issues like closer integration, defense commitments and budget spending (often closer to the hearts of France and the southern countries) have received renewed focus since the Brexit vote. That momentum could easily fade if Britain retains its traditional role as a pro-Northern European, liberal voice.
This would make Brexit more divisive within the EU, despite it having proved so far to be a unifying glue. While several leaders including France’s Emmanuel Macron and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands have insisted that they want a clear reason and a clear plan from the U.K. before granting an extension, officials in Brussels doubt that a few months will be enough to sort out the mess in Westminster. There’s certainly little hope for a radical solution like a second referendum or a general election in that time-frame.
The emerging tension will be between pro-federalist forces worried about Britain watering down Europe because of its own dysfunction, and fans of more individualistic national relations who want to keep London’s large budget payments and balancing weight against the integrationists on board.
Europe has always been home to internal contradictions. Brexit might well bring about the most unexpected example yet of a “multi-speed” Europe: One of the EU’s biggest member states retaining all of its perks despite having filed for divorce. And Nigel Farage will have a platform for five more years from which to bash the EU. Maybe nothing ever changes.
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Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
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