British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces an uphill battle getting a deal through the British parliament by the October 31 deadline. Image: iStock

What a mess it has been. For those who have been tracking the events unfolding in Westminster since the crucial Brexit vote in June 2016, it has been like watching an infectious wound repeatedly oozing pus despite multiple treatment attempts.

European Union flag with fabric structure. Image: iStock
Image: iStock

Three years and three months later, despite lengthy and tortuous negotiations between London and Brussels, the UK remains in the European Union.

The original March 2019 deadline has not been met.

And it is not because there is no deal. There is a deal, but it has yet to be approved by the British parliament.

Former British prime minister Theresa May has three times failed to secure parliamentary ratification for the deal.

Her failure to deliver Brexit eventually led to her ousting and subsequent replacement by Boris Johnson, who has since vowed to deliver Brexit at all costs.

Prime Minister Johnson has failed to renegotiate the deal with the EU and both parties remain in a stalemate.

Should a no-deal Brexit happen, it will lead to irreparable damage to the UK, the EU and the world. It is in the interest of the EU as a whole to take a fresh approach to head off this economic disaster.

EU must change its approach

Since the invocation of Article 50 in March 2017, repeated requests for the extension of the Article 50 deadline have been made by the UK government to the EU.

The UK Parliament is deeply divided, and that is a glaring reflection of the deep underlying divisions within the country as it struggles to come to a clear consensus on Brexit.

Johnson attempted to engineer Brexit at all costs. The attempt has since backfired as the move energizes his opponents to pass a law which forces him to seek a delay until January 31, 2020, unless a deal or no-deal exit is approved by Parliament by October 19. He has failed to win approval for an early election and has lost his parliamentary majority.

While the UK remains stuck in this stalemate, the EU must act to protect itself from being collateral damage of this political game in Westminster.

While the UK remains stuck in this stalemate, the EU must act to protect itself from being collateral damage of this political game in Westminster

Needless political bickering in Westminster potentially puts the livelihood of millions of ordinary Britons and Europeans in the UK and other parts of the EU at risk.

The current approach of waiting for the British government to approve the Brexit deal and then granting additional Article 50 extensions is clearly not sustainable.

A fresh approach by Brussels is needed to deal with this mess.

The current UK government is unable to get its act together and the UK remains dangerously prone to a no-deal Brexit despite a newly passed law that stipulates that Johnson must write to President Donald Tusk to seek an extension to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

Johnson has made use of the October 31 deadline as a political weapon to whip up the urgency of Brexit and to fulfill his promise of delivering Brexit at all costs.

Johnson has no interest in negotiating a deal with the EU. His main goal is to score political points.

A few individuals like Amber Rudd have quit the cabinet to protest his handling of the matter.

The deadline set by the EU to force the UK to ratify the Brexit deal has ironically become a ticking time bomb for the Union. PM Johnson has made use of the deadline to achieve his political goal and should he succeed, he will cause tremendous harm to the European Union.

The EU must understand that Johnson is not a typical British prime minister. He is not known for being rational; he is best known for being an opportunist looking to advance his political career.

A different approach is needed to deal with him.

So the big question in Brussels is how to deal with Johnson and Brexit.

The solution is simple but very controversial. Should Johnson come to ask for an extension of Article 50, the EU should contemplate suspending the deadline for the UK to ratify the Brexit deal.

Until British ratification of the deal is completed, the UK should not be allowed to leave the EU.

Also, the EU should not engage in negotiations with the British government until the latter has brought to the table a set of serious practical proposals.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has said a long extension carried “significant risks for the EU” and that a “strong justification would be needed” before the EU would agree.

Well, I believe with the developments to date, the justification is sufficient for the EU to agree. A suspension of the deadline now carries the least amount of risk for the EU compared to a short-term extension.

A lot is at stake, such as the Good Friday agreement. The peace and prosperity of Europe are at risk.

Suspending the deadline will enable sane people in the UK to regroup and hopefully retake the negotiating table in the UK government that has been occupied by right-wing Brexiteers.

With no time pressure on the UK to reach an agreement, Johnson would not be able to force a no-deal Brexit.

It would also mean that the 27 leaders of the other EU countries would not have to go through relentless rounds of politically difficult votes to extend the Article 50 deadline for the United Kingdom.

As the clock ticks toward October 31, a fresh approach is urgently needed.

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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