Brexit now delayed to 31 October: What does it mean?

, by Juuso Järviniemi

Brexit now delayed to 31 October: What does it mean?
After yesterday’s summit, European Council President Donald Tusk called on the UK not to waste the Brexit extension. Donald Tusk in 2018. Photo: European Council President / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

At the late-night European Council meeting yesterday, EU leaders rejected British Prime Minister Theresa May’s request to extend Brexit until 30 June, instead offering an extension until the end of October. The UK has accepted this longer extension. The British political class now has more room to breathe but making a decision still won’t be easy. In the coming months, we should expect the UK Parliament, rather than Theresa May, to find a solution to the Brexit crisis. That solution might well be a referendum.

What happened yesterday night?

Theresa May had sought an extension until the end of June while remaining committed to leaving the EU before the European elections in May, should the UK Parliament ratify her Brexit deal in time. However, at the European Council meeting, other leaders were unconvinced. May’s last-minute cross-party talks with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party had failed to result in new proposals, and therefore the leaders didn’t think the UK had a real plan.

French President Emmanuel Macron took the strictest line on the Brexit extension, while many other leaders were prepared to accept an extension up until the end of 2019, or even spring 2020. After the summit, Macron said he “took responsibility” for blocking a longer delay. European Council President Donald Tusk, who has taken perhaps the most accommodating stance towards the UK, already entertained the possibility of a new extension request in October.

Donald Tusk finished his statement to the press by telling the British: “Please, do not waste this time”.

What does 31 October mean?

One rationale for extending Brexit until the end of October is that the current European Commission’s term is set to finish on 31 October. Last night, Jean-Claude Juncker already joked that if there is a debate on a further extension at the end of October, he might have to leave the table at midnight as his term expires. In reality, such a debate would likely be a couple of days before the deadline, just as yesterday’s debate was two days before the 12 April deadline.

Even though Theresa May says that the UK government will try to pass its deal and leave the EU as soon as possible, it is virtually certain that the UK will take part in the European elections in May. However, if Brexit happens to go to plan this time, the current stage of Brexit debates will be none of the next Commission’s business. At the same time, one should note the purely political nature of this decision: Emmanuel Macron sought a shorter extension and managed to pull out a compromise.

It has been estimated that it would take the UK 22 weeks to hold a new referendum on EU membership. 22 weeks from today would be 12 September, and pro-EU politicians in the UK were quick to comment that the October extension would be just enough for a ‘People’s Vote’ to be held, if the UK Parliament so wishes.

Before the summit, the journalist Robert Peston wrote that a year-long extension would enable a “more open, honest and less time-sensitive” debate about Brexit in the UK, which would remove pressure to come up with “a sub-optimal fudge”. He also said that this relative calm would make a People’s Vote the most likely outcome.

Brexit supporters in the UK are furious about a delay, and many ask why Theresa May is not resigning, having earlier said that “as Prime Minister”, she could not “consider a delay further beyond 30 June”. However, it will be difficult for the Brexiteer faction of the Conservatives to push May out before October because, after the failed oust attempt in December, the Prime Minister is immune to a new challenge from within her party until next December. This is bad news for the Brexiteers who believe that a proponent of a car-crash Brexit would be the most popular among the party’s membership in the next leadership election. Few believe Theresa May can survive as Prime Minister far beyond this December.

In theory, the government may also be able to pass its deal through the Parliament, though at the moment the Parliament is in no rush and can therefore scarcely be forced to agree to a deal that it despises. Changes to the “Political Declaration”, a non-binding document attached to the Brexit deal that sketches out the UK’s future relationship with the EU, may still be negotiated. However, Labour has been worried that – even if some of Theresa May’s promises, like guaranteeing that the UK continues to follow EU minimum labour standards, are enshrined in UK law – a future Conservative Prime Minister would immediately flush Theresa May’s promises down the drain. As such, a negotiation to get a majority of MPs behind the Brexit deal won’t be easy, even if there is now more time.

Alternatively, the government may still collapse under the pressure of Brexit, bringing about a general election and potentially a U-turn in British Brexit policy. The third alternative, of course, is a referendum. On 1 April, a plan for any Brexit deal to be put to a referendum only fell 12 votes short of a majority. New attempts to find a parliamentary majority for a referendum will certainly be made in the coming months. The initiative for an election or for a referendum will most likely not come from the Prime Minister: it’s the Parliament that has to lead the way forward.

If the UK cannot come up with a plan by the autumn, the likelihood of a no-deal exit becomes ever higher. If Theresa May returns to Brussels in October with no plan, asking for an extension, the EU’s patience would be wafer thin and a hard Brexiteer would already be waiting at the gates of 10 Downing Street. As Donald Tusk said, to avoid a no-deal disaster in late 2019, the UK cannot waste the time that Merkel, Macron and others granted it yesterday.

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