Brigid Laffan

After almost two years of negotiations, the only political and legal certainty surrounding the UK’s departure from the EU, is that it will not happen at 11 pm Brussels time on the 29th of March 2019.

From the outset, the EU adopted a clear set of objectives when confronted by Brexit. While regretting the UK’s decision, the Union prioritised an orderly exit to minimise the disruption and damage that would ensue. Beyond that it favoured a close relationship with the departing member state but one that did not undermine the integrity of the EU and its core regimes. Finally, it was committed to protecting the interests of the Union, EU citizens and its member states. These combined objectives stemmed from a determination and resolve to protect the EU as a polity. 

On the 21st of March, Europe’s leaders met to discuss a request from PM May to extend the article 50 process to the 30th of June because the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) had twice failed to garner sufficient support in the House of Commons (HoC). At the beginning of the meeting, there was an exchange with PM May on her WA ratification strategy. In a discussion that lasted over 90 minutes, it became clear to the EU27 leaders around the table that the Prime Minister had no concrete plan to secure the vote, other than returning the question to the Commons. Les Chefs took responsibility for next steps by offering the UK two dates. The leaders agreed an extension to the 22nd of May provided that the WA was passed in the HoC by the 29that the latest. Otherwise, the UK had until 12th April to return to the European Council with a way forward if there was a failure to ratify. The 12th of April became the new 29th of March. 

The leaders’ intent was to return responsibility to London and avoid the 29th of March 29 cliff-edge. A major consideration for the leaders was the European elections that are scheduled to take place on 23rd-26th May. If the UK is still in the Union on 23rd of May, the legal consensus is that it must hold EP elections. Following the European Council, the ball is firmly in the UK’s court and the Government and HoC have to try to arrive at an accommodation that avoids a no-deal Brexit. Given the deep fissures in the two main parties, this may well prove beyond the May Government. 

Following the meeting last week, the EU completed its preparations for a disorderly exit on the 12th of April. This is a signal that the EU is taking the prospect of a no-deal very seriously at this juncture. The press release dated 25th of March was stark in its conclusions: the UK would immediately become a third country with no transition period. Relations would be governed by international public law including WTO rules and all UK citizens would cease to be citizens of the Union. 

The no deal preparations are unilateral actions by the EU to mitigate the worse effects of no deal but there will be no bilateral mini deals with the UK. All EU measures and actions are designed for a limited time period so that the UK cannot count on them as a long term solution. One of the early crunch points will come on budgetary matters; the EU is prepared to continue to pay UK beneficiaries for contracts signed before the 30th of March 2019 provided the UK pays its contributions to the EU budget and allows for audit checks and controls. If the UK refuses to honour its financial commitments, relations between the two sides will deteriorate further very quickly. 

The Irish border is a major concern for the EU and the Irish Government in the event of no deal. The Union is committed to avoiding a border on the island of Ireland but must also ensure that the integrity of the single market is maintained. There are discussions between Dublin and Brussels on how to manage the necessary checks although not at the border. The island of Ireland is likely to be one of the first casualties of the UK failure to reach a domestic accommodation on Brexit. 


Professor Brigid Laffan is the Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute, Florence.

Image: Jakub Kriz


This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association (PSA) and Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI).  


To read the entire series, please see below:

  1. What’s the likely impact of Brexit on Higher Education in Northern Ireland? by Cathy Gormley-Heenan
  2. Brexit and a second Scottish Independence Referendum: What happens next? by Margaret Arnott
  3. What's the difference? British and Irish attitudes towards the EU by Kathryn Simpson
  4. Brexit and devolution in Wales by Roger Awan-Scully
  5. The Backstop: a ‘flexible and imaginative’ solution? by David Phinnemore
  6. Culture, the arts and Brexit by Kate Mattocks
  7. Brexit and implications for Scottish Devolution by Nicola McEwen
  8. Is Brexit propelling Northern Ireland towards Irish unity? by Katy Hayward
  9. Blair and Brexit by John O'Brennan
  10. The looming possibility of a retaliatory relationship between the UK and the EU by Will Phelan
  11. Brexit: Ethnopolitical dimension by Timofey Agarin
  12. Irish-British relations: Preparing for momentous change by Paul Gillespie
  13. Brexit, gender and Northern Ireland: Changing the state-society relationship by Yvonne Galligan
  14. Beyond the backstop: the DUP’s role in Brexit by Jon Tonge
  15. Brexit, political parties & power-sharing in Northern Ireland by Sophie Whiting
  16. Brexit and devolution in England: What's at stake by Arianna Giovannini
  17. What do people in Northern Ireland think about Brexit? by Jamie Pow and John Garry
  18. Brexit, diplomacy and defense by Ben Tonra
  19. Empathy, minorities and Brexit by Richard English
  20. Young people and Brexit: Not all that we think by Emily Rainsford
  21. Is the Backstop a Red Line Too Far? by Etain Tannam
  22. The UK's view of the EU by Simon Usherwood
  23. The invidious impact of Brexit on Ireland's policy landscapes by Mary C. Murphy
  24. Looking into the abyss: A European perspective by Brigid Laffan
  25. Britain after Brexit by Anand Menon
  26. Brexit as Political Irony by Feargal Cochrane
  27. The Brexit Countdown Series: Some concluding thoughts, and an appeal by Muiris MacCarthaigh and Feargal Cochrane