By Pawel Swidlicki, Calum O’Byrne Mulligan and Will Walden in London
Good morning. Guten Morgen. Bonjour. The United Kingdom remains a member of the European Union this morning after the Prime Minister who said she couldn’t ever countenance delay to Brexit, has now countenanced just that, not once, but twice. The UK is now set to leave the EU on 31 October 2019 (yes, Halloween). Mrs May cannot have foreseen even a few shorts weeks ago that she would be pleading for another extension. And yet, faced with a cliff edge exit this Friday, and with no consensus at home, that is exactly what she plead for in Brussels last night. After nearly five hours of post dinner debate Europe’s leaders allowed a chastened Prime Minister one final roll of the dice and agreed to delay our departure from their club for a further six and a half months. Longer than Mrs May wanted, but shorter than many thought likely, after French President Emmanuel Macron dug his heels in.
Baring a miracle, the UK will now take part in European Parliamentary elections on 23 May, nearly three years after it voted never to do so again. That’s about the only certainty. So, just because we can, let’s play ‘Brexit what next’ (and yes these are only predictions)! Both the Tories and Labour could well get a kicking from voters in those elections. Remainers will rejoice at the extension (and the prospect that Brexit just might be dead), Brexiteers will despair that that might just be true, and the Prime Minister will be given one last chance to get her deal/a compromise deal/frankly any deal through a recalcitrant House of Commons. Fail and Mrs May is almost certainly ‘toast’, even though Downing Street is insisting this morning that the Prime Minister will stay in post until she gets a deal through. A Tory leadership contest will follow, and with it a hard-line Brexit supporting Prime Minister will emerge to fight it out with the EU, and a largely remain Parliament. A General Election to break the impasse will inevitably follow. Where that leaves us is anyone’s guess. It is also in all probability Europe’s worst nightmare.
Here’s what happened last night, why it matters and what might happen next…
What has happened?
At last night’s emergency European Council summit, the leaders of the other 27 member states decided to offer the UK an extension until 31 October, with a review scheduled for the European Council on 20-21 June.
Prime Minister Theresa May has accepted the EU’s offer despite it being longer than the 30 June extension she had asked for. However, EU leaders did not want to find themselves in the position of having to agree rolling extensions to Article 50 every few weeks.
The just over six-month extension is also shorter than many other member states had supported, with the majority backing an extension of nine months or one year. However, French President Emmanuel Macron led a smaller group concerned by the corrosive impact of the UK’s continued membership on the functioning and integrity of the EU. This resulted in the compromise date of 31 October, which would see the UK leave ahead of the formal inauguration of the new European Commission in November.
Once formally confirmed by the UK, the new date will become binding in EU law. UK domestic law will also have to be updated for reasons of consistency, but the extension will be legally operational regardless.
This extension is premised on the UK taking part in the European elections on 23 May. The Government has put in place the necessary legal measures for this to take place, and the parties have begun their candidate selection processes. If the UK were not to hold these elections, the extension would only last until 1 June.
However, the extension will not have to last until 31 October if Parliament is able to approve and implement the Withdrawal Agreement and a Political Declaration earlier, meaning it is still theoretically possible for Brexit to take place before the new European Parliament is seated on 2 July.
Following some concerns that under a longer extension, the UK might adopt a strategy of trying to sabotage and frustrate the EU from within under a different PM – a strategy openly advocated by certain Brexiteers including Jacob Rees-Mogg – the EU has insisted on a number of safeguard measures to prevent this scenario, dubbed by some as ‘Boris-proofing’.
These include an insistence that the UK “refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives, in particular when participating in the decision-making processes of the Union” as well as establishing mechanisms to exclude the UK from collective discussions about future EU plans and policies.
What does it mean?
Brexit will now be delayed again, this time for a considerably longer period during which time renewed attempts will have to be made to find a form of Brexit that Parliament can unite around. That could happen via a successful conclusion to the on-going cross-party talks, but progress so far has been glacially slow.
However, the long extension and increasing polarisation could also kill off any momentum to agree a form of Brexit that would be politically unpopular in many quarters. Therefore, the only way to break the impasse could be to hold a General Election or potentially even a confirmatory referendum on Mrs May’s deal.
Given the recent momentum away from pro-Brexit forces, this longer delay could well result in either a softer Brexit or no Brexit altogether.
That said, Brexiteers will also see a longer extension as an opportunity. They may try to depose Theresa May and install a Brexiteer as Prime Minister. That PM could seek to change the political weather and try to negotiate a backstop-free deal to deliver a harder Brexit, or potentially even a no deal Brexit.
This would almost certainly involve calling a new General Election as the current parliamentary arithmetic effectively precludes such a hard Brexit policy. Any newly installed Tory PM who tried to pursue a hard Brexit without an electoral mandate would likely fail to win a vote of confidence in Parliament, and a General Election would follow anyway.
If held, the European elections could provide a litmus test of public opinion on Brexit. These elections would see Labour and the Tories competing with parties explicitly geared around Brexit, including Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party, a UKIP which has moved towards the far-right, and the new enthusiastically pro-Remain Change UK party. Pro-Remain forces could potentially do well amid low enthusiasm and low participation from Leave voters.
What happens next?
The UK will formally accept the extension when Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU will deliver a letter to the Commission later today.
The Government will lay a Statutory Instrument changing the exit date in UK law – as a result of the Cooper-Letwin Bill, this will now not require a vote in both Houses of Parliament, it will instead take effect immediately (i.e. the negative affirmation procedure).
Meanwhile, talks between the Government and Opposition on trying to find a common Brexit position will continue, although an imminent breakthrough appears unlikely.
The European election campaign will get underway with the vote taking place on Thursday 23 May. Before that a set of local elections will take place across England and in Northern Ireland, with Brexit also a dominant theme.