Trick or treat? French and German views on ‘Brextension’

The heads of ECFR’s offices in Paris and Berlin share the thinking in their countries about the latest round in the Brexit saga

The British parliament has passed a law preventing the United Kingdom from leaving the European Union without a deal on 31 October. But it does not completely rule out a Halloween no-deal Brexit: regardless of what the new law says, all the other 27 members of the EU would have to agree to an extension. What if other European leaders do not sign up to another delay?

The View from Berlin

by Josef Janning

The latest twists and turns of Brexit have deepened the alienation between the political classes of Germany and Britain. German political actors have had enough of the tactical manoeuvres in London. Coming from a deep respect for, if not admiration of, Westminster democracy, recent events have reinforced the view that its rules and procedures are outdated and dysfunctional; that political consensus and stability are things of the past in Britain; and that the country’s 300-year-old union could come to a sudden end.

The outcome that German politicians would like to see is Britain leaving the EU in an orderly fashion. At the same time, they realise that the likelihood of a no-deal exit has grown substantially, while British voters still appear split over whether or not to leave.

For Berlin, the UK’s decision to leave remains a mistake of historic proportions for the British people. For this reason, the German government will be willing to allow for more time if this contains the option to correct this mistake.

Berlin would be willing to accept another extension of the exit deadline, and another one after that should it become necessary

Mostly, however, the government is concerned with what could happen in the absence of a deal. A crash-out Brexit will create a serious political rift between Berlin and London, poisoning the rhetoric and ritual of partnership between European countries. It will mean additional costs to the German budget to compensate for Britain’s refusal to fulfil its financial obligations, and additional means to support Ireland. While it may not spread to other corners of the EU immediately, such an outcome could also weaken the concept of integration and its narrative at a time when both already show signs of erosion.

And, over the coming years, Britain could become a leading critic of EU affairs, setting out to interact directly with member states and claiming this as the ‘natural order’ of international affairs – from sovereign state to sovereign state. It would be bound by no loyalty to common European goals and decisions. In pursuit of its own interests, such an approach may well seek to foster anti-German sentiment on the continent, which would further complicate matters for German policies in the EU.

In consequence – and unenthusiastically – Berlin would be willing to accept another extension of the exit deadline, and another one after that should it become necessary. Germany would not, however, accept any agreement that falls short of the essentials agreed in the withdrawal agreement: the UK’s financial obligations, the status and rights of EU citizens in the UK, and the open border on the island of Ireland. Should London eventually come up with better proposals to secure these essentials, a new deal could win the support of Berlin.

The view from Paris

by Tara Varma

Despite the last month’s political ructions in Britain, France’s position has not budged: indeed, it is the member state that appears the least willing to grant yet another extension if there is no clear and viable alternative to the backstop. When Boris Johnson came to Paris at the end of August following his visit to the German chancellor, he pledged he would come back with a plan. There is no sign of this plan yet.

France’s position has not budged: it is the member state least willing to grant yet another extension

French budget minister Gerald Darmanin indicated again just last week that “France was ready for a no deal Brexit”. But he revealed how worried he is about the unpreparedness of the British side, especially when the immediate consequence will be to recreate a border that has not existed for years. France has been making preparations for several months now, through a series of exercises involving moving people and goods at key crossing points, such as at Dunkirk, Calais, and the Brittany coast. In addition, the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, has tasked all ministers to insist on a higher preparation level for a “no deal Brexit” for economic operators, as well as individuals. French media widely disseminated the Operation Yellowhammer scenario, wherein the British government identified the most brutal consequences of a “no deal Brexit’”: shortages of food, water, and medicines, and disrupted transport and border management. Cross-Channel movements would be severely hit, potentially plummeting by 40-60 percent. “Yellowhammer” also acknowledges the possibility of a return of a hard border in Ireland.

For France, in the absence of an acceptable counter-proposal from the British side, the least bad scenario for Europe is to put an end to this situation – including by not agreeing an extension – if only to start seriously talking about the post-Brexit partnership between the UK and the EU.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow

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