The UK House of Commons has voted overwhelmingly to delay Brexit. The UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 but last night, Thursday 14 March, MPs voted by a hefty majority of 413 to 202 in favour of the UK seeking an extension of the article 50-based Brexit negotiations with the 27 other EU governments.
Now Westminster must consider two extension options. Should the House of Commons approve the Brexit deal by 20 March, MPs have agreed that the UK should request a short extension from the EU until 30 June 2019 (latest). This would give time to transpose the Withdrawal Agreement into UK law. However, if the deal is defeated a third time next week in the House of Commons, the UK government may have to reconsider the purpose of an extension. MPs noted, therefore, that a longer extension past 30 June 2019 may be required.
The Extension Process
The UK PM Theresa May will attend a summit in Brussels next week, with the 27 other EU heads of state and government on 21-22 March. At that summit, the EU-27 must agree unanimously to any extension request from the UK.
Although they would all prefer to avoid a no deal Brexit, above all the other EU leaders will want to know the purpose of any extension to article 50 talks, as that would largely determine the length of time required. There are other factors to consider, such as UK participation in the European Parliament elections, which will be held 23-26 May. If the UK remained in the EU beyond June and participated in those elections, that could hinder the institutional functioning of the EU, assuming the British still firmly intended to exit.
There is currently no consensus on the preferred type of extension from an EU perspective. European Commission President Juncker has suggested a short extension up to 22 May, to ensure the UK does not participate in the European elections. European Council President Donald Tusk has asked the EU-27 to consider a longer extension, perhaps up to the end of 2020, to give the UK time to build a stronger political consensus on its path forward.
Ireland has already indicated it favours the latter, a long extension, but other governments are less sure. This is because there are significant pros and cons with both approaches for the EU.
A Short ‘Technical’ Extension
A short extension up to the end of June (maximum), is often referred to as a ‘technical’ extension, as the UK government would likely request it to have enough time to pass the Withdrawal Agreement into UK law (if MPs approve the deal by 20 March). It is also possible that UK PM May will tell the other EU governments that she wants a short extension to have yet another parliamentary vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, if the upcoming third (pre-summit) vote fails by a small margin.
If the UK did not take part in the European Parliament elections, most EU legal experts agree that to the end of June is the longest short extension possible, as newly elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will take their seats on 2 July. One advantage of a short extension for both the EU and the UK, therefore, is that it avoids this potential awkwardness of the UK participating in the European Parliament elections. There is also a risk that European elections in the UK could become a dry run of another membership referendum, which may only generate even more political instability in the UK.
However, there are concerns that a short extension would not give the UK enough time to build a stable and lasting majority to adequately resolve the current Brexit impasse. A short extension would also set up a new ‘cliff edge’ of 30 June to ratify and transpose the deal into UK law. This may be far from straightforward, if the deal is only narrowly approved by MPs. In such a scenario, the necessary legislation might be vulnerable to wrecking amendments, from either ultra-Brexiteer or ultra-Remainer MPs, and the risk of an ‘accidental’ no-deal exit could rise.
- Avoids an immediate no deal Brexit on 29 March
- Avoids complication of UK participating in the European Parliament elections
- Helps get Brexit over with, ideally in an orderly fashion
- No guarantee of a sustainable political consensus emerging in the UK
- Delays a no deal Brexit, but does not prevent one in 2-3 months
- Rules out a UK rethink, and the UK potentially remaining
A Long ‘Political’ Extension
The basic objective behind a long extension, say to the end of 2020, would be to give the UK time to build a sustainable political consensus on its path forward. This assumes the UK government tells the other 27 EU governments that there is currently no majority possible at Westminster for any course of action. Therefore, it would likely be necessary to hold a general election soon, and eventually perhaps even another referendum on EU membership.
While many in the remaining 27 governments would like the UK to change its mind and remain in the EU – and may even wish to insist on another referendum as a condition for a long extension – there is no guarantee of such an outcome. For one, the EU cannot force the UK to hold another referendum (and most MPs voted against this proposal at the House of Commons this week). For another, in the event of another referendum, a majority may vote to leave the EU again. So, in some respects, nothing may substantially change from today.
There are at least two other risks for EU governments, with agreeing to a long extension. The UK is currently experiencing a great deal of political turbulence over Brexit. If an unstable UK remains in the EU for another 21 months, this could greatly complicate the functioning of the EU. And this at a time when most EU governments are already tired of the Brexit process and want to focus on other priorities, such as migration or the future of the Eurozone.
Furthermore, agreeing to a long extension, even though in response to a request from the UK government, would leave the 27 remaining governments open to the charge of trying to overturn the 2016 UK referendum result. Some EU members will have general elections in the coming months, such as Finland and Spain during April, where so-called ‘populist’ Eurosceptic parties will be trying to gain ground. Plus anti-EU parties are already expected to perform well in the May European Parliament elections, and they would surely use a long extension as another stick to beat the EU with.
- Avoids a no deal Brexit in the short term
- Gives the UK time to find a sustainable political consensus
- The UK may hold another referendum and remain in the EU
- A currently-unstable UK remains a member, perhaps hampering EU decision-making
- Feeds Eurosceptic narrative of “pro-EU elites” overturning democracy
- No guarantee the UK would eventually vote again to remain in the EU
It now seems very likely that the Brexit clock will tick for longer, although for how long and to what end remains unclear. But to avoid an immediate no deal exit on 29 March, the UK and the EU-27 will have to reset the Brexit clock by the end of next week.