The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy. It is a nuclear-armed state with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. It has a world-class services industry and a population of more than 60 million people.
Malta, by contrast, is the world’s 124th largest economy. It has, according to Eurostat, a population of under 500,000 people.
Yet at around 6:45 p.m. local time, Joseph Muscat, the Prime Minister of Malta, will have a greater say in the ultimate outcome of the UK’s future than Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Because, Muscat, unlike May, will have a seat at the dinner table along with other EU leaders where the future of Brexit will be thrashed out.
The UK’s inability to agree on a political level how it wishes to leave the EU has caused the Brexit deadline, March 29, to be missed once already. The fact that the House of Commons rejected May’s Brexit deal a third time on that very day has led to the unedifying events that will follow in Brussels a little later.
Late last week, May wrote to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, requesting an extension to Article 50, the process by which the UK leaves the EU. May asked that Brexit be delayed till June 30, allowing the UK just a little more time to get its house in order. It’s unlikely June 30 will be agreed to be the other EU leaders.
The problem Brexit faces now is that there’s no road left to kick the can down – or at least, not without consequences. The new Brexit deadline, April 12, was decided upon because it is the latest point at which the UK must declare its intention to stand in European Parliamentary elections or not. If the UK is still an EU member state on May 23, then it must field candidates in that poll.
By asking for an extension until June 30, May appears to have all but accepted this fate. She even admitted as much in her letter to Tusk.
While this might seem a matter of huge embarrassment for May, it is a matter of even greater concern for the EU. In the days since May’s letter to Tusk became public, hardline Brexiteers have said that, should the UK remain stuck in the union at this point, then it will “become a Trojan horse within the EU.”
This isn’t just tough talk from sore losers: as a full member state with MEPs sitting in Brussels and Strasbourg, the UK will have full member state rights. It will be able to have input in EU projects – and crucially budgets – with little blowback.
This is where we come back to June 30. May has selected this date as it comes one day before the newly elected EU Parliament will sit for the first time. This means that, even in the event of the UK taking part in these elections, should her deal be approved in time, Brexit will happen exactly as she wants.
But what May wants and May gets have to date been very different things. At the moment, the thinking in Brussels is that the extension will be granted, but it will be much longer than June 30. It cannot be stated often enough how little the EU wants to be held responsible for pushing the UK towards a no-deal Brexit.
However, other EU leaders are less satisfied with this. Emmanuel Macron, the French President, has been visibly frustrated by the oxygen Brexit is sucking out of European politics. While no one expects him to push for a no deal, it is no secret that in his eyes – and not his alone – there are worse outcomes than a no deal. One of those outcomes might be a Trojan-horse UK.
This summit was called on March 29, as the first Brexit deadline disappeared. On Friday, it’s possible another will disappear. The UK’s future is being decided miles from London. It must be horrible to be a Brexiteer right now.