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Why Boris Johnson won’t agree to a Brexit extension

Jannike Wachowiak

Date: 28/05/2020
By running down the clock and refusing to ask for an extension, Boris Johnson’s hope seems to be to secure concessions from the EU at the last minute. This form of brinkmanship is likely to backfire and increases the chance of no deal.

Why an extension is necessary

There is now an overwhelming case for an extension to the transition period. The COVID-19 crisis has temporarily disrupted the short timeline for talks on a future EU-UK relationship. The pandemic has taken the political spotlight away from Brexit, but even more significantly, it has changed the context in which the UK is exiting the transition period. On a global level, the pandemic has caused an economic downturn with unprecedented consequences for economic growth, unemployment rates, and living standards. The Bank of England has forecast the UK economy will experience the deepest recession in 300 years. Adding the economic shock of Brexit to this mix seems reckless.[1] An extension to the transition period is urgently needed to avert reinforcing the economic damage caused by COVID-19. However, the UK government is adamantly opposed to an extension and there is not much time left to come to an agreement. Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, an extension must be approved before 1 July 2020.

Why Boris Johnson is unlikely to ask for an extension before the deadline

Past Brexit extensions have all been requested just before the deadline. This time, however, it seems likely that the UK government will not request an extension, letting the deadline pass.

Domestically, Johnson governs with a large majority and faces little opposition. Since becoming prime minister, he has refused to accommodate different opinions on Brexit, even going so far as to expel 21 Conservative Members of Parliament who tried to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Additionally, he added a section to the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 prohibiting any UK minister from agreeing to an extension, thus creating an additional obstacle to this possibility.

Johnson is currently using a lot of his political capital to shield his special advisor Dominic Cummings from accusations of breaking lockdown rules. By keeping Cummings in place, he is picking a fight with members of his own party who want Cummings gone, thereby adding to already existing tensions within the party about the timetable to ease lockdown measures. It is, therefore, even more unlikely that Johnson would want to open a second front with his Brexiters on extending the transition.  

The UK government seems to believe that by running down the clock, it will be able to secure concessions from a ‘weak and divided’ EU at the last minute. In light of COVID-19, the EU is faced with difficult decisions about the financing of the EU’s recovery, its place in a globalised world, and its commitment to the rule of law within its borders. The British government is convinced that it will be able to exploit these divisions more effectively at the end of the year. That is, when the pressure is high, and concessions will be required to reach a compromise.

This strategy seems to be based on the belief that it was Boris Johnson’s brinkmanship that landed him a better deal than what was previously offered to Theresa May. But the reality is different: Johnson only secured amendments to the Withdrawal Agreement because he was willing to cross a red line set by his predecessor: to effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market, putting up a border in the Irish Sea. A truth the Conservative (and Unionist) Party is only slowly coming to terms with. Rather than crumbling under the pressure, the EU remained remarkably united throughout the withdrawal negotiations, making it impossible for the UK to strike any bilateral deals with individual member states.

So far, the EU has been able to maintain this unity in the negotiations on the future relationship. This is a bigger challenge than before because negotiations now entail politically sensitive topics, such as trade and fisheries, on which member states’ interests vary considerably. Nevertheless, maintaining a united position has been relatively easy since the UK’s demands are perceived as unreasonable and in part, contradictory. So far, it wants the limited obligations of a ‘Canada-style’ Free Trade Agreement, while expecting access to the Single Market that goes far beyond the EU-Canada deal.

The UK wrongly believes that EU unity will not last when faced with a final deadline and the threat of no deal. This kind of thinking underestimates the EU’s willingness to protect the integrity of the Single Market, and the European project as a whole. It is true that the EU wants a deal, but certainly not at any cost, and only provided that fundamental demands, such as sufficient level playing field provisions and guarantees on governance and fundamental rights, are met.

Johnson’s brinkmanship increases the risk of no deal

Even if the UK’s assumptions about a possible split between the member states are right, it will not make it easier to strike a deal. A divided EU will settle on the lowest common denominator as a last resort, thus increasing the chance of a no deal by default.

By running down the clock and waiting for the EU to move, the UK government has significantly increased the chances of a no-deal scenario. The UK has no status quo to fall back on, and serious doubts remain whether the country is sufficiently prepared, especially after announcing to renege on its contingency plan, Yellowhammer. Failing to prepare for the worst-case scenario properly leaves the UK without any leverage and again increases the risk of no deal.

The extension question might resurface later this year…

With the EU unwilling to agree to a deal at any price, Johnson’s strategy is likely to hit a wall later this year. When he realises that he cannot secure the trade deal he wants from the EU, Johnson will face some difficult choices. The UK could compromise on the EU’s central demands, leave the transition period without a deal, or try to secure a last-minute extension. Faced with such economically and politically costly options, instead of compromising or accepting no deal, Johnson might try to secure a short extension. But by then, the option to extend under the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement will have elapsed, and there are no easy alternatives available.

…but by then, it will be uncertain if both sides can come to an agreement

Legally, at that point, an extension would probably require the conclusion of a mixed agreement and, therefore, a unanimous decision in the Council, the agreement of the European Parliament, and the approval of national - and in some cases regional - parliaments. Politically, it might also be more difficult to come to an agreement. The EU is likely to demand similar terms and conditions, i.e. a transition period of up to one or two years and a financial contribution from the UK.

Additionally, some member states might want further concessions or guarantees, e.g. on politically sensitive topics like fisheries, especially if they are under the impression that the UK is not negotiating in good faith. Johnson might find he is unable or unwilling to agree to these terms. These political and legal pitfalls make it very uncertain whether a late extension request could still be accommodated.

Of course, this line of thinking assumes that Boris Johnson is just playing for time and that he actually wants to secure a deal. This is, however, far from certain. By pushing these decisions into the autumn - and thus potentially creating a situation wherein an extension is not possible - Johnson might be preparing the ground for trying to shift the blame for a no deal onto the EU, alleging inflexibility, intransigence and a dogmatic approach.

In either case, it seems that, once again, the EU and the UK are facing a no-deal outcome, whether by design or by accident.  

Jannike Wachowiak is a Junior Policy Analyst in the Europe’s Political Economy programme

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.


[1] See Zuleeg, Fabian (2020), “The need for a longer transition”, Brussels: European Policy Centre.

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